By Nicholas Kusnetz, Center for Public Integrity
New Mexico’s state capitol, the Roundhouse
SANTA FE — On February 20, New Mexico’s House Energy and Natural Resources Committee gathered for one of its regular meetings in a drab room here at the capitol, a circular building known as the Roundhouse. On the agenda: a bill that would hike fees and penalties for energy companies drilling wells in the state.
The votes fell along party lines, with five Republicans lining up against the bill and the committee’s Democratic majority voting to send the legislation to the House floor. The Republicans argued the bill would stifle business and cost jobs, and for one lawmaker, the issue hit particularly close to home. Rep. James Strickler spends most of the year running his own small oil and gas production company, JMJ Land & Minerals Co. The bill would directly affect his profits. (more…)
By Nicholas Kusnetz, Center for Public Integrity
The Republican-controlled Florida Senate unanimously passed a landmark ethics reform package on Tuesday, the first day of the legislative session, setting the stage for what could be the first major changes to the state’s ethics laws in decades.
The bills would strengthen provisions that prevent lawmakers from immediately becoming lobbyists, expand the powers of the state’s ethics commission and require that financial disclosure reports be posted online. (more…)
By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
Broward Circuit Judge Michele Towbin-Singer, left, and ex-Judge Marcia Beach
A state appeals court chief judge and three Broward Circuit Court judges lent their names to Bob Butterworth’s private push for a $44.8 million-a-year state mental health management contract, state records show.
The judges are recently resigned members of the board of directors of Broward Behavioral Health Coalition, a nonprofit that teamed up with Miami’s for-profit Concordia Behavioral Health to win the deal.
A multiyear contract is to be signed this week that establishes Broward Behavioral as the county’s new “managing entity” for substance abuse and mental health services.
Three judges who joined the board early on are identified by name and title on bid documents submitted to the Florida Department of Children and Families last winter by Butterworth, a former DCF secretary who is president and chairman of Broward Behavioral. Biographies of the judges were included.
Florida’s Code of Judicial Conduct, however, prohibits judges from lending “the prestige of judicial office to advance the private interests of the judge or others.”
The judges are Fourth District Court of Appeal Chief Judge Melanie May, Broward Circuit Judges Michele Towbin-Singer and Marcia Beach – who recently retired, and county mental health court Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren. Towbin-Singer succeeded Beach in drug court.
Each of the judges resigned from Broward Behavioral’s board this month after a state judicial ethics panel ruled in June that judges may not serve on such boards. Earlier, Butterworth had assured DCF negotiators the judges would not step down.
Fourth District Court of Appeal Chief Judge Melanie May
The last to resign: Judge May, who quit minutes before Monday evening’s board meeting. She could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
The ethics opinion has not stopped judges around the state from serving on the boards of other DCF managing entities.
For example, in Miami-Dade Judges Steven Leifman and Jeri Beth Cohen serve on the board of the South Florida Behavioral Health Network. Leifman chairs the group.
DCF’s contract award in Broward last March prompted a bid protest from a competing group that claimed the contract had been illegally steered to Butterworth’s group by unnamed state officials. The protest was dismissed, but the corruption allegations were not investigated.
JUDGES’ NAMES MADE AN IMPRESSION
Records show the judges’ presence on the board impressed DCF’s negotiators. Shortly before the contract was awarded last March, negotiators cited the judges as a reason to look favorably on Broward Behavioral’s bid, a review of audio recordings show.
BrowardBulldog.org reported last week that a silent investor in Concordia, Broward Behavioral’s profit-seeking partner, is a deep-pocketed political insider who has given heavily to Gov. Rick Scott’s campaigns.
On Jan. 25, while DCF’s Broward procurement was pending, Concordia shareholder Miguel B. Fernandez gave $125,000 to Let’s Get to Work, an organization raising money for Scott’s 2014 re-election campaign.
Fernandez, a wealthy Coral Gables healthcare entrepreneur, and one of his companies, MBF Family Investments, together have contributed $625,000 to Let’s Get to Work since September 2010, records show.
JUDGES AND ETHICS
The connection of big campaign money to the Broward managing entity contract is particularly problematic for judges who are generally supposed to steer clear of political influence.
But there was another problem.
The June 11 ethics opinion that held judges should not serve on the boards of private, not-for-profit corporations that – like Broward Behavioral – are organized to administer tens of millions of dollars in DCF funds.
A judge in Palm Beach County had sought the opinion from a Florida Supreme Court committee that advises judges so they can steer clear of trouble.
“Of particular concern in the present case is the nature of the managing entity. Viewed one way, the managing entity is a stand-in for an agency of the executive branch,” the opinion says. Judges who serve on such boards “could be said to be involved in the granting of governmental funds and overseeing their use.”
The opinion cited another concern: that judges who serve on such boards could be perceived as conduits or agents for vendors like Concordia.
“Whether or not the (unidentified vendor) is itself a corporation not for profit, a judge should take care not to lend the prestige of judicial office to advance its interests,” the opinion says.
Broward County Court Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren
Judges May, Towbin-Singer and Beach served on Broward Behavioral’s board for months after the ruling. In September, records show, then-Judge Beach even participated with Butterworth in a contract negotiation session with DCF.
Judge Wren was not identified to DCF as a board member until Oct. 1.
BUTTERWORTH WANTS A BETTER ANSWER
Butterworth, a politically connected Democrat and former judge and sheriff, discussed the ethics ruling during an Oct. 9 negotiation session. He said Broward Behavioral’s judges had “been advised they don’t have to resign at this time” and that “every judge to the best of my knowledge” would continue to serve.
The state’s former top attorney also declared that he wanted to go back to the ethics committee with a reframed question in search of a better answer.
“We are attempting to work on an appropriate question to ask the committee and we hope we get a different response,” Butterworth told the DCF negotiators.
By last Thursday, however, the status of at least some of the judges had changed.
Hollywood attorney Larry Davis, a Broward Behavioral board member, informed the DCF negotiators that it was now decided the judges “can’t serve at this point” and that a search was on for replacements.
In an interview Friday, board member and County Commissioner Lois Wexler said that Judges Towbin-Singer, Beach and Wren had stepped down from Behavioral’s board.
Judge May, however, remained on the board. Earlier in the month, Butterworth had told DCF that the Fourth District Court of Appeal “is not covered by the advisory opinion,” but did not explain why.
On Monday, May arrived at Butterworth’s Fort Lauderdale law office about 15 minutes before the meeting and went to his office.
She expressed concern about “the negativity that’s around her participation” on the board, said Wexler.
Shortly after that, the judge resigned.
By Susan Ferriss, Center for Public Integrity
In 2004, the National Rifle Association honored Republican Florida state legislator Dennis Baxley with a plum endorsement: Its Defender of Freedom award.
The following year, Baxley, a state representative from Ocala, worked closely with the NRA to push through (more…)
By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
Rep. Ted Deutch, left, and Rep. Alcee Hastings
A new study by a Washington watchdog group describes how numerous members of the U.S. House of Representatives – including 18 from Florida – have used their positions to financially benefit themselves and family members.
The South Florida standouts in Thursday’s 347-page report by the non-partisan Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) are Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar and Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton.
Hastings, a former federal judge and a 10-term member of Congress, paid his girlfriend, Patricia Williams, $622,574 between 2007 and 2010 to be deputy district director of his congressional office. Her most recent annual salary was $166,000, the report says.
“In addition, Rep. Hastings owes Ms. Williams, a lawyer, between $500,001 and $1,000,000 for defending him during an impeachment trial,” the report says.
In 1988, then-U.S. District Judge Hastings was impeached for bribery and perjury. He was convicted a year later by the Senate and removed from office.
Hastings is also cited in CREW’s report, titled “Family Affair,” for having been reimbursed $15,647 for travel and event expenses by his campaign committee.
DEUTCH PAYS RENT TO BROTHER’S LAW FIRM
Rep. Deutch, was an attorney at Broad and Cassel before he was elected to Congress in 2010. His brother, Jeffrey Deutch, is a managing director in the firm’s Boca Raton office.
Deutch’s campaign committee, Ted Deutch for Congress, paid rent to his brother’s employer, the report says.
“During the 2010 election cycle, Rep. Deutch’s campaign committee paid Broad and Cassel $14,720 for rent, shipping and telephone services,” the report says.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, is a 12-term Congresswoman and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
The report details her campaign’s reimbursements to her and her father, Enrique Ros. For the 2008 and 2010 election cycles, Ros-Lehtinen was reimbursed $76,000 for travel, meal and other expenses. In the same period, her father was reimbursed $1,500.
Some examples in the report involve small amounts of money
For example, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, is cited because her campaign paid about $600 fees to her husband’s employer during the 2008 and 2010 election cycles. Steve Schultz is a vice president at Community Bank of Broward, where his wife maintains an account for her campaign.
DID MICA EARMARK BENEFIT DAUGHTER’S CLIENT?
Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, sponsored a $13 million earmark in 2009 for the controversial, 61-mile Central Florida Commuter Rail project “that appears to have benefitted his daughter’s client,” the report says.
Rep. John Mica
His daughter is D’Anne Mica. From 2003-2011 she ran Mica Strategic Communications, a public relations firm. The firm’s web site listed the Florida engineering firm PBS&J as one of her clients.
The report says that PBS&J, acquired in 2010 by the United Kingdom’s engineering and design giant WS Atkins, supported that major rail initiative which is also known as SunRail. A number of Atkins’ employees are listed on a “Sunrail Key Contact List” prepared by Mica’s office and updated earlier this week.
Rep. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, is the House’s longest serving Republican. The report says he “earmarked millions of dollars to his sons’ employers.
Billy Young is a senior coordinator at the National Forensic Science Technology Center in Largo. Between 2008 and 2010, his father earmarked more than $12.2 million to the center, the report says.
Patrick Young worked as a security administrator at Science Applications International Corp. in St. Petersburg. In fiscal year 2008, his father earmarked $4.4 million to SAIC, the report says.
Rep. Young also employed his daughter-in-law, Ashley Abreu Young, as a case assistant in his office. Her most recent salary was $44,000, the report says.
BROWN EARMARKED TO DAUGHTER’S CLIENT
Congresswoman Corrine Brown, a 10-term Democrat from Jacksonville, earmarked money to a client of her lobbyist daughter, the report says.
Shantrel Brown-Fields is a partner at the lobbying firm of Alcalde & Fay and lobbies on transportation and infrastructure issues. Her clients include the Community Rehabilitation Center of Jacksonville.
Between 2008 and 2010, Rep. Brown earmarked a total of $939,000 to the Community Rehabilitation Center, the report says.
The campaign of Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, paid the congressman’s sister-in-law a salary and paid two of his private companies for various services, the report says.
Yvonne Buchanan drew a salary totaling $117,000 during the 2008 and 2010 campaigns.
Buchanan’s Jamatt Properties was paid about $76,000 during the same campaign for rent, storage and other services, the report says. Buchanan’s Auto Central Services was paid $6,500 during the same period.
Republican Congressman Cliff Stearns, Gainesville, and Gus Bilirakis, Tampa, were also cited for earmarks in the report.
In 2008 and 2009, Rep. Stearns earmarked $430,000 to his wife’s employer, the College of Central Florida, the report says. His campaign also donated to the college.
Rep. Bilirakis earmarked $350,000 in 2010 to All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg. Bilirakis is honorary chairman of the Greek Children’s Fund for All Children’s Hospital, the report says.
Editor’s note: This story is an overview of the findings of the State Integrity Investigation, a first-of-its-kind, data-driven assessment of transparency, accountability and anti-corruption mechanisms in all 50 states. The project was overseen and edited by The Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C.
By Caitlin Ginley, The Center for Public Integrity
The tales are sadly familiar to even the most casual observer of state politics.
In Georgia, more than 650 government employees accepted gifts from vendors doing business with the state in 2007 and 2008, clearly violating state ethics law. The last time the state issued a penalty on a vendor was 1999. (more…)
Editor’s note: This story about Florida is part of the State Integrity Investigation, a first-of-its-kind, data-driven assessment of transparency, accountability and anti-corruption mechanisms in all 50 states. The project was overseen and edited by The Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C.
By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
Florida kicked off the modern era of open government reforms when it became the first state to pass an open meetings law in 1967. Today, Florida’s Sunshine Law, and its even older Public Records Law, are among the strongest in the nation.
But while Florida lets plenty of sun shine in on public meetings and records, it has done a poor job of illuminating the activities of lobbyists. Most states and the federal government require registered lobbyists to make public what issues or actions they seek to influence. Florida does not. Lobbyists dealing with the executive branch aren’t even required to report what agencies they are lobbying.
The mixed assessment is reflected in the Sunshine State’s grades from the State Integrity Investigation, a collaborative project of the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International. Florida, a state of 19 million residents, receives a grade of C- and a numerical score of 71, ranking it 18th among the states. Florida’s Corruption Risk Report Card.
The lobbying maze
In Florida, lobbying firms are required to file quarterly compensation reports that identify their clients and state how much they are paid – but disclosure is limited to broad dollar ranges. Federal lobbyists are required to report an exact figure.
Compensation reports were enacted, but expenditure reports were repealed, after the law was changed in 2005 to ban gifts to lawmakers from lobbyists, following a scandal.
Lobbyist compensation reports may be lacking, but they are accessible online. The information they contain about lobbyists and their principals is formatted and available for download without cost.
Unlike some of its municipalities, notably Broward County, Florida does not disclose lobbyist contacts with legislators or agency staff. Florida also has not followed the lead of states like Nevada, which publishes a Facebook-style lobbyist list.
The rules for reporting are weak, but a deeper flaw is that the law requires so few people to register and report at all, according to Philip Claypool, the former longtime executive director and general counsel for the Florida Commission on Ethics.
The state definition of executive lobbyist has as many holes as “Swiss cheese,” he said.
Florida law defines a lobbyist to include “a person who is principally employed for governmental affairs by another person or governmental entity.” That seems to exempt corporate employees, said Edwin Bender, executive director of the nonprofit and nonpartisan National Institute on Money in State Politics.
Large governments within the state also exploit loopholes to avoid the registration and disclosure requirements in Florida’s lobbyist regulations.
Florida’s five regional water management districts manage water quality and flood control. They award tens of millions of dollars in annual contracts. But lobbyists who seek to influence those deals are not required to register or disclose who hired them or how much they are being paid.
The districts contend that as independent taxing districts they are not covered by lobbying rules that govern other state agencies.
A lack of enforcement
Enforcement of state lobbying disclosure requirements – such as they are – is minimal. Florida requires lobbying firms and principals to preserve their accounts and records for four years to substantiate compensation for possible audit. Audits, however, are virtually non-existent.
“The law contemplates audits, but they are not done,” said Claypool. He explained that the high cost of audits and the unwillingness of private accountants to do the limited audits contemplated by the Legislature combined to kill the idea.
Claypool and Bender explained that when irregularities are found, which isn’t often, it is the Legislature that investigates.
“The process is cumbersome,” said Claypool. “Investigations are initiated by sworn complaint and if a committee finds a violation it can recommend a penalty of not more than $5,000, a reprimand or a prohibition on lobbying not to exceed two years. Any penalty is subject to a majority vote of the House or Senate.”
“It’s set up so it’s a wink and a nod,” said Bender. “The incentive is not to investigate and a $5,000 fine is a slap on the wrist.”
Florida's Capitol in Tallahassee
Florida agencies that enforce ethical standards for public officials – the Commission on Ethics and the Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) – are weak, too.
The Ethics Commission, which investigates misbehavior, has no power to initiate investigations. It can only respond to sworn complaints on an approved form, Claypool said.
The Judicial Qualifications Commission has the authority to launch an inquiry of a judge, but rarely does so on its own initiative, according to its longtime executive director Brooke Kennerly. Both commissions can only recommend penalties – to the governor and the Supreme Court, respectively.
Florida’s Statewide Grand Jury issued a corruption report in December 2010 that was critical of the Ethics Commissions’ civil fine structure – saying its $10,000 maximum penalty was inadequate.
“We find the Legislature should increase the cap to $100,000 as it would be more of a deterrent and more justly set apart the violations based on severity. We point out that the Commission on Ethics has no enforcement authority and that it goes to the Governor to be enforced,” the report reads.
But Tallahassee attorney Mark Herron, who represents public officials accused of ethics violations, attributed the criticism to a general misunderstanding of the commission’s role.
“I can understand where the grand jury is coming from, but by the same token there are things called ‘crimes.’ Things related to administrative rules and the ethics code are for the most part not crimes,” said Herron. “Getting whacked for $10,000 and being branded as an unethical guy, is that significant?”
While the two commissions are ostensibly independent, each is undermined by structural deficiency. The nine Ethics Commission members are political appointees of the governor, House speaker and Senate president. The JQC is dominated by appointed judges and lawyers – a structure the 34-year-old nonpartisan, nonprofit public interest group HALT has criticized as an “insular” system in which “litigants are reluctant to file ethics complaints” because “the oversight system itself is controlled by judges.”
As for gifts to public officials, Florida regulations are generally tough, but tempered by both limitations and exceptions.
State law, for example, prohibits elected officials, candidates and employees from soliciting or accepting “anything of value…based upon any understanding that (their) vote, official action or judgment” would be influenced.
But the law also says that individuals required to file financial disclosure statements, and state procurement employees, may accept a gift from a lobbyist so long as it is worth $100 or less.
“So you can take $100 worth of stuff every day,” said Herron. “Under state law, these public officials have no obligation to inform the public that they have received these gifts. The lobbyist is supposed to make a report of any gift given in excess of $25, but less than $100, but most of the time they don’t do that report.”
State legislators face a broader general prohibition, and can’t take any gift from a lobbyist, except flowers “displayed in chambers on the opening day of a regular session.” Judicial rules say judges are not supposed to accept gifts and are also obliged to discourage family members from accepting them.
But exceptions are written into the law when lobbying is kept all in the family. An all-expense paid vacation, for example, provided by relatives, is perfectly fine, even if the relatives are also lobbyists.
In Florida, a relative is defined to include everyone from a parent to a step-great-grandchild, or even a fiancé.
Florida’s quarterly gift disclosure reports, like its annual financial disclosure reports, are filed with the Ethics Commission and available for public inspection. They are not online, but copies can be obtained via email free of charge.
Access to information
It is the strength of Florida’s open records law that makes the lobbying rules seem that much weaker.
The right of Florida’s citizens to access such government records is rooted in the state’s constitution, state statutes and legislative and judicial rules. No state agencies or officials are exempt, although there are certain statutory exemptions regarding items like trade secrets or active law enforcement investigations. In a disturbing trend, however, the Legislature adds more specific exemptions to the list every year.
There are other problems, especially when it comes to the cost of electronic records.
In addition to copying charges, agencies are allowed to assess extensive user fees from those who seek information about their government. Fees are charged for clerical and supervisory personnel, as well as “information technology resources” used to search or build databases.
“That’s where we are really seeing a lot of push back at the agency level, mostly related to electronic records,” said James Rhea, former director of the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation. “We are seeing people who don’t get what they ask for because of cost…It’s a growing problem in Florida” that has not been adequately addressed by the legislature.
Costs can vary wildly between agencies, said Patricia Gleason, special counsel for open government at the Florida Attorney General’s Office.
“So much depends on the type of computer system the agencies have,” Gleason said. “Ask for emails in one jurisdiction and you might be charged $25. In another because a computer system is out of date, it might be $200.”
She added that it’s helpful for the public to tailor their requests in order to narrow agency search time and limit the fees they will be charged.
Costs also can ramp up quickly if a citizen must go to court to force an agency to release public records. But there is redress. Under Florida statute 119.12, agencies that refuse to produce a public record can be ordered by a judge to pay a requestor’s attorneys’ fees and costs.
“I tell government agencies: You lose. You pay,” said Gleason.
By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
The Florida ethics commission has found probable cause to believe that Fort Lauderdale consultant Joseph Cobo had business conflicts that “interfered with his public duties” as a North Broward Hospital District commissioner.
But over the objections of a Broward corruption prosecutor, the ethics commission decided to do nothing about it and close Cobo’s case.
Cobo, accused of exploiting his public position for private gain, owns and operates Florida Medical Management Consultants, which provides management and financial services to doctors. He stepped down from the district’s board when his term expired in September.
In a signed settlement agreement, Cobo acknowledged that probable cause exists that he twice violated Florida’s Code of Ethics for Public Officers and Employees. Nevertheless, the commission without comment last month adopted the recommendation of its attorney, Melody Hadley, that the case be dropped and no penalty assessed. Hadley did not explain the basis for her recommendation.
PROSECUTOR’S CONCERN DISCARDED
The ruling brushed aside concerns expressed by Broward Assistant State Attorney David Schulson. Schulson lodged the complaint against Cobo a year ago after declining to file criminal charges due to a lack of corroborating evidence that Cobo had used his power as a commissioner to try and punish a doctor who refused to retain Cobo’s consulting company.
“I do not agree that there should be no imposition of a fine,” Schulson wrote in a Nov. 21 letter. “Cobo admits in the proposed (settlement) that there is probable cause…and he should accept a reasonable fine for those violations.”
The district, which operates under the name Broward Health, is a special taxing district that runs several public hospitals, including Broward General and North Broward Medical Center. Cobo, a Republican activist, was appointed to the board in 2007 by then-Gov. Charlie Crist.
Cobo’s legal troubles began in early 2009 when the hospital district board hired the Lash and Goldberg law firm to investigate allegations of ethical misconduct regarding his involvement in business matters involving Broward Health. The firm’s findings of potential ethical and criminal violations by Cobo were forwarded to the governor’s office, where they initially languished.
Broward prosecutors began an investigation into whether Cobo had improperly used his public office to steer business to his company after reports of his actions were published in New Times Broward-Palm Beach. Last January, Schulson closed the probe after concluding Cobo’s actions were not criminal, but followed up quickly with a complaint to the ethics commission.
Specifically, Schulson asked for a review of issues involving two matters: Cobo’s role in a lease dispute at one of the district’s hospitals, Imperial Point Medical Center, and his involvement in the district’s recruitment of Dr. Dimitrios Lintzeris, a family practitioner in Pompano Beach.
COBO HAD CONFLICTS
The ethics commission ultimately determined that then-Commissioner Cobo had a conflict when he contacted Imperial Point’s chief executive, Calvin Glidewell, and questioned him about the terms of the lease while also representing clients involved in the dispute. The commission also decided Cobo had a similar conflict when he contacted Glidewell to allegedly bad mouth Dr. Lintzeris after Litzeris decided not to sign a consulting agreement with Cobo’s firm even though Cobo previously had interceded on his behalf with a Broward Health official.
Three other related charges against Cobo were not sustained by the commission in findings made public Dec. 7.
Neither Cobo nor his Fort Lauderdale lawyer, Stuart R. Michelson, responded to requests for comment.
But in a pleading filed with the commission this fall, Michelson observed: “This entire process, with the investigation of the state attorney and now before this honorable commission, has been a nightmare…and he has suffered greatly as a result of it, both emotionally and financially.”
In September, Gov. Rick Scott chose Oakland Park lawyer and Broward Republican Party activist David Di Pietro to succeed Cobo on the board.
By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
Steve Gonot, Sylvia Poitier
UPDATE: Dec. 16 – Five current and former Deerfield Beach commissioners have been cleared of accusations that they broke state conflict of interest and gift disclosure laws.
The Florida Ethics Commission said last week that it found no probable cause to believe that any of the five had improperly accepted free tickets to a city festival from a local lobbyist, or that they had failed to disclose them as gifts as required by law.
The five are Vice Mayor Marty Popelsky and former Commissioners Pam Militello, Sylvia Poitier and Steve Gonot and ex-Mayor Al Capellini. The complaint was filed by local activist Chaz Stevens based on the findings of a city-funded audit by Kessler International that raised questions about possible misuse of the tickets in 2006 and 2007.
Poitier, Gonot and Capellini, however, continue to deal with various other criminal matters. Poitier faces sentencing on Jan. 11 following her November conviction on four misdemeanor counts of falsifying public records. Gonot is appealing his conviction last spring on grand theft and other charges. Capellini is awaiting trial on a charge of unlawful compensation.
Oct. 31 - After months of quiet investigation, the Florida Commission on Ethics will hold a closed-door hearing in early December to decide whether there is probable cause to believe that five current or former Deerfield Beach city commissioners broke state conflict of interest and gift disclosure laws.
Those to face hearings are Vice Mayor Marty Popelsky, former Mayor Albert Capellini and ex-city commissioners Sylvia Poitier, Steve Gonot and Pam Militello, according to ethics commission correspondence obtained by Broward Bulldog.
For Capellini, Poitier and Gonot, the Dec. 2 Tallahassee hearing is their latest legal woe. Capellini awaits trial Dec. 5 on a charge of unlawful compensation. Poitier is set to go to trial in two weeks in Broward Circuit Court on five unrelated misdemeanor counts of falsifying public records. In July, Gonot was sentenced to 364 days in jail and five years’ probation following his conviction on campaign-finance related charges of official misconduct, grand theft and falsifying records. He remains free pending his appeal.
Militello, who lost a re-election bid in 2009, sponsored the city’s ethics law after the unrelated corruption arrests of both Gonot and Capellini in December 2008.
The ethics commission probe began in the wake of complaints filed last December by Deerfield Beach muckraking activist and blogger Timothy “Chaz” Stevens, 47, shortly after an independent audit report detailed alleged “exploitation and gross financial mismanagement” of taxpayer dollars to pay for large street festivals.
The audit by Kessler International included evidence that commissioners obtained multiple tickets and parking passes to festivals in 2006, and in the case of Militello, also in 2008.
One city document “lists 262 tickets given to Commissioner Poitier” for that year’s Mango Festival, Stevens wrote in a complaint letter to the ethics commission. The face value of each ticket was $35; parking passes cost $10.
Gonot and Militello requested dozens of tickets and multiple parking passes for the same festival, according to Stevens’ complaint. Popelsky requested three dozen tickets and nine parking passes; Capellini received 18 tickets, the complaints say.
In his Nov. 29, 2010 audit cover letter to City Attorney Andrew Maurodis, company president Michael Kessler stated that “interviews and supporting documentation” showed that Poitier, Gonot and Militello “saw an opportunity to capitalize on at least one of these street festivals and secured blocks of tickets for free and distributed the tickets to garner political support.”
Stevens, a professional software developer who operates MyActsofSedition.com, alleged in separate complaints that Poitier, Gonot and Militello took those tickets and parking passes and then failed to report them on the state’s required gift disclosure forms. The complaints also contend that because all three later voted to approve city funding for the festivals, they should have filed with the city clerk – but did not – a state “Memorandum of Voting Conflict” form.
Tamarac lawyer and former Broward School Board member Kevin P. Tynan, who represents Gonot, and Deerfield Beach attorney A. Thomas Connick Jr., who represents Militello, both said they received a report about the investigation that suggests it has boiled down to a single question: whether the tickets should have been disclosed by city commissioners on gift disclosure forms.
“It clearly was indicated by the investigator that there was no one at the city that thought that this was considered to be a reportable gift,” said Connick. He said does not know if Militello intends to attend the probable cause hearing.
Neither Connick nor Tynan would agree to release the report about the investigation, which is not yet public.
Popelsky could not be reached for comment.
A lawyer for Capellini, Fort Lauderdale’s J. David Bogenshutz, said he believes it likely that the case against his client will be dropped at the hearing.
Sylvia Poitier’s Pompano Beach lawyer, Johnny L. McCray Jr., did not respond to a request for comment.
The ethics commission is a nine-member body that operates in secret until its members decide whether probable cause exists to believe that state ethics laws have been violated. If it finds no such cause, the complaint is dismissed. If it finds probable cause, a trial may be held. If a violation occurred, the commission can recommend a penalty to the governor.
Three of the commission’s current members are from Broward. They are Susan Horovitz Maurer, managing partner at the Fort Lauderdale law firm of Panza Maurer and Maynard; Pompano Beach attorney Linda M. Robison, a partner at Shutts & Bowen and Lighthouse Point businessman Roy Rogers.
The ethics commission correspondence that announced the December hearing last week is stamped “Confidential.” It says the hearing will be held Dec. 2 at 10 a.m. in Room 37S of the Senate Office Building. Under commission rules, only the accused, their attorneys and Stevens are allowed to attend.
The ethics commission’s “advocate” and the accused will each get five minutes to provide statements to the commission. No witnesses will be called, and no new evidence may be introduced. “The sole purpose of the probable cause hearing is to evaluate the results of the preliminary investigation,” the correspondence says.