Tallahassee Democrat by Jeff Burlew
October 25, 2017
Tallahassee city commissioners voted Wednesday in favor of adding new measures to their ethics ordinance, but they rejected key language that would have made it easier to prosecute cases involving misuse of position.
Commissioners discussed changes to their ethics laws, including provisions involving gifts, on the same day City Manager Rick Fernandez was in the news for soliciting Florida State football tickets from a local lobbyist. Fernandez, who asked for the tickets in texts that the city refused to release, attended the workshop but was silent throughout. Neither commissioners nor staff brought the matter up during their two-hour meeting.
Peter Butzin of Common Cause Florida said he was disappointed but not surprised commissioners didn’t discuss Fernandez.
“We have all this stuff going on and duh, they’re not getting it,” he said.
The city’s Independent Ethics Board recommended commissioners adopt three provisions involving misuse of position, gifts from lobbyists and greater financial disclosure. Commissioners voted to adopt all three.
But in a 4-1 vote, they rejected the advice of the Ethics Board, which recommended a lower burden of proof for misuse of position complaints. The provision bars city officials and employees from using their position to get a special benefit for themselves or others.
Commissioners supported using language similar to state statutes requiring proof of corrupt intent. The Ethics Board recommended using a standard that officials acted “intentionally” rather than “corruptly.”
City Attorney Lew Shelley and Ethics Board Chairman Richard Herring said the “corrupt” standard makes it more difficult to prosecute misuse of office cases.
“When we looked at the idea of ‘corrupt,’ we thought that that was a difficult standard” to meet, Herring said.
Herring said at the state level, more than 50 percent of complaints filed with the Florida Commission on Ethics involves misuse of position. He also noted that the state agency has asked lawmakers to change the corrupt standard “because they have a difficult time dealing with that particular phrase.”
Commissioner Scott Maddox moved to adopt the corrupt standard, saying it complied with state law. [READ MORE]