There’s an old joke, “I used to be a people person, but people ruined that for me.”
That about sums up my outlook these days.
It seems that every news cycle brings a new political fiasco that reinforces the notion that those we have elected and appointed to represent our collective interests are really only interested in benefiting themselves or the uber-wealthy cabal of influential insiders.
Whether you follow the constant ebb-and-flow of politics or not, eventually, even the most disconnected citizen begins to feel the consequence of government corruption, ineptitude and insider influence in their daily lives.
Even if they don’t immediately recognize the forces at play, they instinctively sense that they – and their tax dollars – are being used to grease the cogs on a much larger wheel.
I read with interest the Daytona Beach News-Journals recent editorial, “Fine line between watch dogs, attack dogs,” regarding the Florida Commission on Ethics decision to ask a judge to decide whether Flagler County should be allowed to recoup legal fees and “costs” associated with ethics complaints filed against county officials.
While I agree that any regulatory system – especially one as complaint driven as the Florida Commission on Ethics – is subject to abuse; in my view, sincere reports of actual or suspected corruption far outweigh the malicious or petty misuse of the process.
During my career in law enforcement I was the subject of several baseless complaints, and I frequently fielded frivolous allegations against my officers – usually esoteric grumbles citing “rude” conduct stemming from a traffic ticket, or more severe cases involving people seeking revenge for an official action taken by the officer. It goes with the territory.
While I agree that we should take definitive action against those who abuse the system, I am just not sure that the imposition of Draconian judgments – awarding legal fees that are far in excess of the penalties often assessed to adjudicated wrongdoers – against whistle blowers who bring earnest suspicions to light is ultimately beneficial.
In Florida’s ethics system, there are numerous and quite specific checks-and-balances which ensure due process at every step, and permit a thorough vetting of accusations while protecting both the subject of the complaint and the integrity of the process.
The Commission on Ethics has a very detailed and statutorily dictated mission with a clearly defined assessment process.
When a complaint is received, it is reviewed for credibility and appropriateness under the law.
Most cases are dismissed at this level as either lacking sufficient legal merit under state ethics statutes, or identified as a malicious attempt to besmirch the character and reputation of a sitting official.
If the complaint is found to meet the rather high standards necessary to proceed, a thorough inquiry is conducted by the commission’s own independent investigators.
If the evidence collected during the investigation warrants, the full Commission holds a hearing to determine whether probable cause exists to proceed. If so, the case is prepared and presented to an administrative law judge by an attorney serving as an “advocate” for the Ethics Commission.
During this hearing, the subject of the complaint has the right to present evidence and testimony in their defense, cross-examine witnesses and present legal arguments and challenges.
The process is very much like a non-jury trial.
At the conclusion of the hearing, the judge – serving as an independent adjudicator – makes a factual finding and comes to a legal conclusion based upon the totality of the evidence. That ruling is then sent to the full commission for final action – which can be anything from complete dismissal of the charge to sanctions for sustained misconduct.
The process isn’t a fly-by-night kangaroo court where a citizen is allowed to throw dung against the wall until something sticks. To the contrary – it is a strict, highly defined process that ensures fairness and incorporates due process at each step.
Clearly, Flagler County has had its share of ethically challenged politicians.
If anyone doubts the exhaustive process required to find an elected official guilty of statutorily defined ethics violations, look no further than the epic saga of Flagler County Sheriff Jim Manfre, his predecessor Don Fleming, or the 2015 indictment of former Supervisor of Elections Kimberly Weeks on twelve felony counts.
In the case of Sheriff Manfre, following a two-year imbroglio, in July Governor Rick Scott finally signed an executive order reprimanding and censuring him for a series of blatant ethical lapses, to include misuse of a public agency credit card and accepting unreported gifts.
At the end of the day, the Sheriff – while serving as the highest law enforcement official in Flagler County – received a scolding by perhaps the most corrupt governor since Louisiana’s Huey P. Long – along with a paltry $6,200 fine.
That’s funny. It’s like the fox admonishing the coyote for raiding what’s left of the hen house.
According to the News-Journal, since November 2014, some 26 complaints have been filed against Flagler County officials with the Commission on Ethics – all by members of something called the “Ronald Reagan Republican Assemblies” – and by Supervisor Weeks herself. (Presumably before her arrest.)
Now, I don’t know the merits or the impetus of these complaints, but apparently all but three of them were dismissed by the Ethics Commission, and that clear abuse of the system deserves a second look.
However, one of those allegations – filed against Flagler County Commissioner Barbara Revels – was thoroughly investigated and proven to have merit.
In fact, the Commission on Ethics ultimately found that Mrs. Revels voted without first disclosing a very real conflict of interest when Flagler County purchased the old Memorial Hospital in Bunnell for $1.23 million in the summer of 2013.
It appears that Barbara had a personal financial relationship with Palm Coast Intracoastal Bank, one of three owners of the hospital property – and I don’t mean a Christmas club account, either.
In fact, the investigation found that the bank had increased Revels’ line of credit just before her vote.
The report of the investigation reads like a good, old fashioned Florida mystery novel.
Ultimately, Revels was found to have violated Florida law, and for her trouble, she was fined a measly $2,500 – again, no more than an inconvenience – just the cost of doing business in Flagler County.
In a 2015 study by the Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, Florida was identified as one of the most corrupt states in the union – as if we needed an Ivy League research project to confirm it.
The report found that the Sunshine State ranks in the “very common” category for both “illegal” and “legal” corruption.
According to the Safra Center, “Illegal” corruption is defined as “The private gains in the form of cash or gifts by a government official, in exchange for providing specific benefits to private individuals or groups.”
“Legal” corruption is defined as, “The political gains in the form of campaign contributions or endorsements by a government official, in exchange for providing specific benefits to private individuals or groups, be it by explicit or implicit understanding.”
According to Lawrence Lessig, the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law at Harvard University and former director of the Safra Center, such dealings are but one aspect of the broader issue of institutional corruption, which sounds eerily similar to what we experience here:
“Institutional corruption is manifest when there is a systemic and strategic influence which is legal, or even currently ethical, that undermines the institution’s effectiveness by diverting it from its purpose or weakening its ability to achieve its purpose, including, to the extent relevant to its purpose, weakening either the public’s trust in that institution or the institution’s inherent trustworthiness.”
Hello, DeBary? Are you listening?
How about voters in Volusia County? Sound anything close to what you’re feeling?
Me too. . .
I think it’s clear that the State of Florida generally, and Volusia/Flagler Counties specifically, have a problem – one that won’t be solved by weakening the ability of citizens to refer their suspicions to the very organization charged by law with investigating and correcting public corruption.
In my view, Florida’s ethics statutes – and increasingly, our public records laws – are being viciously attacked and eroded by the very politicians who seek to benefit most.
Permitting prohibitive financial judgments for legal fees and subjective costs against citizens who file complaints – even those with merit that are not acted upon – will not only have a chilling effect on would-be whistle blowers, but it will add yet another layer of insulation to corrupt politicians who know citizens simply won’t risk their family’s financial future to hold them accountable.