Tallahassee Democrat Editorial
October 24, 2017
The Democrat has written more than 60 stories on the FBI investigation into city corruption and related issues of ethics and impropriety.
None has been more startling – and has included such a smoking gun – as the one published in Wednesday’s Democrat on Tallahassee City Manager Rick Fernandez’s Sept. 27, 2016, texts to a lobbyist requesting football ticketsfor Florida State’s Oct. 1 game vs. North Carolina.
Here are the facts:
When the Democrat requested all of Fernandez’s text messages from the week of Sept. 26, 2016, the city’s response was: There were none.
But now we know those two things were simply not true.
In a string of texts stretching from Fernandez’s initial request for tickets to the personal delivery of them to his office, the reality of what happened is laid bare for all to see.
By the way, if you are inclined to brush this off because the tickets don’t have much value, understand that these were luxury box seats with an estimated total value of almost $2,000.
Unsurprisingly, legal and ethics experts say this is not good. The Democrat also confirmed that the state ethics commission has subpoenaed and is in possession of these texts. But the more pressing question for Fernandez is – does the FBI have them too?
And now the city commission must tackle this issue, a task complicated by the reality that one or more commissioners may be in the FBI’s sights.
But the questions don’t stop there. Where does the city attorney’s office fit into this equation? It certainly wasn’t doing anything to promote transparency.
The city’s initial response to the public records request was as vague as it was unhelpful: “We have concluded the search for this information and found no information for the below request,” wrote Susan Myers of the Treasurer-Clerk’s office.
The Democrat then asked for clarification on its request for Fernandez’s texts five different times. Each time the newspaper was met with obfuscation and delay.
Who was calling the shots here? What was done to recover the texts?
One basis the city has asserted for excluding documents from public records requests is the so-called “personal” exemption. It was first invoked by City Attorney Lew Shelley in April when this newspaper was examining how Andrew Gillum’s office had become a nexus of the personal, professional and political, where the mayor’s second job and political ambitions ran parallel to official city business.
Since news of the FBI swooping into town, the city has been pointing to the “personal” exemption with alarming frequency.
. . .
And the questions can’t just be about the ethics and legality of requesting tickets from a lobbyist who had clients appearing before the city. Elected officials must also address what is happening inside the city attorney’s office. The culture of stonewalling and secrecy must stop.
This office needs to start with what is in the public’s interest, not covering for commissioners or staff. And by the way, the idea that Shelley should be allowed to hand-pick his successor is laughable. Confidence will not be restored by the status quo, but by an independent process leading to an independent advocate.
A crisis in confidence is developing within our city’s government.
It’s time for the public to be provided answers, not obfuscation.
After all, the taxpaying public is paying for this government out of their own pockets. They deserve straight answers and transparency.
Mostly, they deserve the truth. [READ MORE / Watch it: Timeline of FBI investigation in Tallahassee]