A Chronology of Corruption and Remediation in Palm Beach County

The Problem – Corruption County
April 2006 West Palm Beach Commissioner Ray Liberti pleads guilty to mail fraud and witness tampering in FBI sting, serves 18 months. He was accused of accepting $66K in cash and $2K watch in what was an FBI sting where he put pressure as a commissioner on a local massage parlor to sell to his client (the informant) who planned a brothel.
January 2007 County Commissioner Tony Masilotti pleads guilty to honest services fraud for $9M in cash and real estate, sentenced to 5 years in prison, 2 years probation, forfeiture of $175K in cash and land worth $9M.
March 2007 West Palm Beach Commissioner Jim Exline pleads guilty to failure to report $50K in income from developer that was funneled through a friend’s jewelry store, sentenced to 10 months in prison.
September 2007 County Commissioner Warren Newell pleads guilty to honest services fraud, collecting $500K from schemes in which his partners profited from his votes as a commissioner, sentenced to 5 years in prison which was reduced by 2 years for cooperating on convicting Mary McCarty.
Also in 2007 FBI sets up special PB unit on public corruption
March 2009 County Commissioner Mary McCarty pleads guilty to taking free resort stays and steering bond sales to her husband, sentenced to 3.5 years. Her husband served 8 months.
August 2010 County Commissioner Jeff Koons pleads guilty to felony extortion, misdemeanor perjury and violating open meeting laws for threatening a developer who opposed his plan for a mangrove island. He is sentenced to 5 years probation and resigns in disgrace. Unlike the others who were arrested by federal agents, Mr. Koons was charged by State Attorney Michael McAuliffe.
Fixing the County
2007 Leadership Palm Beach Ethics Initiative founded by David Baker and Marty Rogel, creates first ethics pledge
May 2009 State Attorney Michael McAuliffe calls grand jury on corruption. Recommendations made address:

  • Bond underwriting practices
  • County Commissioner Discretionary Funds
  • Governmental Land Practices
  • Existing criminal, ethics and other public integrity laws
July 2009 County Commissioners adopt grand jury recommendations and direct formation of an Ethics Commission and Office of Inspector General
October 2009 First draft of ordinances is prepared by Lenny Berger and County Attorney staff but is found to have insufficient independence for Inspector General
October 2009 Commissioner Santamaria reaches out to grassroots for help in insuring independence of IG. Online petitions by South Florida 912 and South Florida Tea Party result in 3500 signatures, and the ordinances get modified to make firing or budget control of the IG by the Commission difficult.
December 2009 First hearing on ordinances, BCC decides to stay out of the hiring process for Inspector General
December 2009 Ordinances Adopted, including:

  • Code of Ethics – defining prohibited conduct, a gift law, an anti-nepotism law and a mandate for ethics training for officials and public employees.
  • Ethics Commission – 5 members to serve 4 year terms, selected for their specific skills from League of Cities (former elected official), Chiefs of Police (prosecutor with anti-corruption experience), Bar Associations (attorney), Florida Institute of CPAs (forensic auditor), and Florida Atlantic University (Professor of Ethics)
  • Office of Inspector General – selected and evaluated by a “selection and oversight committee” consisting of the Commission on Ethics, the State’s Attorney, and the Public Defender, funded by a formula equal to not more than .25% of the value of county contracts and only removable for cause during the duration of a 4 year contract by a vote of the selection/oversight committee AND 5 members of the County Commission.
  • Lobbyist Registration
February 2010 An Implementation Committee is established by the BCC to guide the startup of the various reforms. Members of the committee are David Baker (Ethics Initiative), Dennis Gallon (Palm Beach State College), Gale Howden (Palm Beach Post), Iris Scheibl (South Florida 912), and Bob Newmark (Voter’s Coalition)
February 2010 The Initial 5 Ethics Commissioners are sworn in. They are:

  • Retired circuit court Judge Edward Rodgers, a former Riviera Beach Councilman appointed by the League of Cities
  • Attorney Manuel Farach, appointed by the County, Hispanic and F. Malcom Cunningham Bar Associations
  • Forensic Accounting Expert Ron Harbison, appointed by the Palm Beach Chapter of the Florida Institute of CPAs
  • Professor of Ethics Robin Fiore, appointed by the President of Florida Atlantic University
  • Former Assistant US Attorney Bruce Reinhart, appointed by the County Association of Chiefs of Police
April 2010 Second McAuliffe grand jury meets. Recommends that the IG and COE jurisdiction be extended to include the municipalities and other government entities, and be added to the charter to become permanent and not subject to change by a future BCC. It also recommended that the School Board be subject to the IG as at the time there were twelve open criminal investigations into school district employees,
April 2010 Alan Johnson, of the Public Integrity Unit of the State Attorney is selected as first Executive Director of the Commission on Ethics.
May 2010 Sheryl Steckler chosen as first Inspector General from a wide field of interviewees.
Extending to the Municipalities
November 2010 County voters approve a ballot proposition to add the ethics ordinances to the county charter and extend oversight to all 38 municipalities with 72% of the vote and majority of each jurisdiction.
November 2010 The Solid Waste Authority votes to fall under the jurisdiction of the Inspector General.
December 2010 Drafting Committee appointed by the BCC to create the charter amendments. The committee consisted of two appointees from the League of Cities (Boynton Beach City Manager Kurt Bressner and Lantana City Manager Michael Bornstein), two appointed by the county (Ethics Initiative co-founder David Baker and former State Senator Dave Aronberg), attorneys for each (Trela White for the League and Donna Raney for the county) and either the Ethics Commission Executive Director Alan Johnson or IG Sheryl Steckler, depending on which ordinance was being considered.
January 2011 As some drafting committee members led by Trela White attempt to limit the scope of the Inspector General in several ways, including a restrictive set of definitions for “waste, fraud and abuse and mismanagement” which would have restricted her actions, a call to action is made to the grassroots community, bringing more public participation and scrutiny into the meetings.
Spring 2011 Third McAuliffe grand jury weighs in on the process:

  • “It will be necessary to meet the increased challenges of hiring appropriate personnel to appropriately staff the agencies. Furthermore, vigilance will be required to avoid attempts (real or perceived) by covered governmental entities to impede or insulate themselves from effective review by creating policies and procedures that create a chilling effect or an outright barrier to effective oversight by the IG or the COE.”
  • “IG performance can be quantitatively measured by the number of investigations performed, the number of criminal prosecutions arising out of its investigation referrals, the number of contracts reviewed, the number of audits performed and, in theory, the net savings to the taxpayer.”

About this time, the Drafting committee rejected “definitions” after contentious debate and the BCC concurred. Some municipalities then put them in their own ordinances – including Tequesta, Manalapan, Mangonia Park, PBG, and the county itself. Furthur, the county and PBG added to their Policies and Procedures Manual (PPM) that all contact between an employee and the OIG must be arranged through the employees supervisor – effectively eliminating any reporting of wrongdoing by the supervisor.

  • “The Grand Jury finds that municipal attempts to define terms found in the County IG ordinance pose a serious risk to the operational independence of the IG. Such attempts run contrary to the intent of the ethics reforms for effective, transparent and independent review of local governmental activity. The IG should not be forced to rely on or accept municipality created term definitions. The Grand Jury recommends that covered entities not adopt or attempt to impose any individual (and potentially different) definitions of waste, fraud, abuse, etc., as these terms already are contained in the County ordinance and are not difficult to understand”
May 2011 With a 5-2 vote (White and Bornstein dissenting), the drafting committee rejects the challenges to the independence of the IG and forwards to the BCC for approval.
May 2011 BCC considers request by League of Cities to add definitions, limit IG access to records, delay implementation, reduce funding, but rejects all. They then approve the charter changes developed by the drafting committee.
Recent Events
Summer 2011 After losing their bid with the BCC, 15 members of the League of Cities led by West Palm Beach bring a lawsuit against the county claiming the IG funding method is unconstitutional.
September 2011 The Health Care District contracts to be subject to the Inspector General
April 2012 Wellington drops out of IG Lawsuit after newly elected Councilmen who won their seats partially on this issue take office.
November 2011 County Clerk Sharon Bock joins the IG suit and freezes the funding that was being received from the municipalities not involved in the lawsuit, claiming it his her fiduciary responsibility to do so. Hiring in the Office of Inspector General grinds to a halt with the funds withheld.
August 2012 The county codifies the requirement that no employee may talk to the Inspector General without permission from their supervisor, effectively eliminating whistle blowing by employees.
August 2012 Some cities add limiting “definitions” to their own policy manuals for “waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement”, effectively drawing a line that the Inspector General cannot cross.
November 2012 The fourth grand jury led by interim State Attorney Peter Antonacci convenes at the request of the Inspector General to oppose the county’s prohibition on contact with the IG. A sign was posted in one department: “There has been a revision in the PPM on IG reporting procedures. You MUST report any IG related item directly to your supervisor, NOT TO THE IG. Your supervisor will then kick it up the chain of command.” Administrator Weisman testifies that he was urged to take this step by county Attorney Denise Neiman. The grand jury rules that the PPM changes violated the charter and the county removes them.
February 2013 The County Commission, acting on a proposal by commissioner Taylor, votes 4-3 to convene a new drafting committee to extend the Ethics Commission to seven members. This was done in the name of “diversity” as Ms. Taylor noticed that in the six months since Judge Rodgers resigned from the commission for personal reasons, there has not been a commmissioner to represent the interests of people of color. Several Ethics Commissioners (Harbison, Fiore) speak against the proposal and indicate that expanding the commission in this way will hamper its operation. It will also politicize the body since now the commissioners would represent “constituent groups” rather than skills.
February 2013 The Inspector General Oversight Committee, considers a proposal by chairman Farach to implement an “internet public opinion poll” to help them evaluate General Steckler prior to her contract renewal next year. The ordinance and grand jury reports are clear on the evaluation criteria for the Inspector General, and “pleasing the public” was not among them. Two of the Commissioners (Fiore and Harbison) realize that internet polls can be manipulated and can provide a tool for those who would like to further hamper the IG, but nevertheless the committee votes 4-2 to proceed.
March 2013 The Palm Beach County Ethics Defense Initiatve (PBCEDA) is formed to counter the emerging threats to the ethics framework.
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  1. […] There are no jobs available, just pay raises for a select few of people who are in the country club we call County government, taxes at work. Secretaries and Administrative Assistants : Occupational Outlook Handbook : U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics We have Administrative and Executive Assistants in the firm, salary range is $30-$50K based on experience. Most are hard working and run around with high heels on all day, busting their backs. Very stressful jobs especially when dealing with senior level executives and etc. I highly doubt County workers are stressed the same, not from my experience. I find them very lazy, entitled and have a holier than thou attitude. Of course working for a corrupt bunch of County Commissioners and turning the other way when they have their hand in the cookie jar takes a special type of person. Another topic, but all of these workers worked for or work for the County Commissioners with a history of Corruption. A Chronology of Corruption and Remediation in Palm Beach County : Palm Beach County Ethics Defense A… […]

  2. […] Corrupt former Palm Beach County Commissioner Tony Masilotti, who pleaded guilty in 2007 of using his office to make a killing in real estate, actually has made a few bucks on a house sale — and, according to county records, the transaction might actually be on the up-and-up. […]

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