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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

FL State Attorney Keeps Pushing For Ethics Reforms

State attorney keeps pushing for ethics reforms
The Sun Sentinel by Andy Reid - December 5, 2010

After championing the Palm Beach County ethics reforms endorsed by voters in November, State Attorney Michael McAuliffe is readying to step up prosecutions and spread the reach of new anti-corruption efforts for scandal-plagued "Corruption County." That includes calling for the School District and local governments to voluntarily come under the oversight of a new county ethics code, Ethics Commission and Inspector General. That also includes McAuliffe's proposal for the county board with top law enforcement officials, the Criminal Justice Commission, to re-think the way it does business. The goal is to stay in line with Florida's open-meetings and public-records laws. McAuliffe has long served on the Criminal Justice Commission but is now proposing that he and other law enforcement officials change its makeup and step down to avoid potential conflicts with Florida's Government in the Sunshine Law. The Sunshine Law concern comes from the frequent conversations that McAuliffe says he and the sheriff and other top law enforcement officials who serve on the commission need to have outside of public meetings. "I can't be the enforcer of those laws and not adhere to the spirit and the letter of them," said McAuliffe, who was elected in 2008.

After a string of Palm Beach County public corruption scandals that began in 2006, voters approved expanding the reach of the county's new Ethics Code, Ethics Commission and Inspector General to all 38 cities, towns and villages. As local communities and the county coordinate the final approvals needed to get those measures in place by April, McAuliffe is working with the county's new Inspector General to prepare for prosecutions that are expected to surface. Voters will have to "keep the pressure on" to spread the measures to other branches of local government, said Bob Newmark, of the Voters Coalition of Palm Beach County, which was among the groups that pushed for the ethics reforms. That includes the School District as well as independently elected officials such as the tax collector, clerk and comptroller, sheriff, property appraiser and supervisor of elections. "If any area in the country needs ethics reform … you know we need it in Palm Beach County," said Newmark, who credits McAuliffe with leading the effort. "The Ethics Code and Inspector General['s jurisdiction] should be expanded." Since 2006, four Palm Beach County commissioners have resigned and pleaded guilty to criminal charges related to misuse of office. Two former West Palm Beach city commissioners were also swept up in federal corruption investigations. A state grand jury led by McAuliffe's office last year issued recommendations for ways to clean up local government. Chief among them was creating the inspector general office to serve as a full-time government watchdog against waste and corruption. A year ago, the County Commission agreed to create the inspector general position. The County Commission also approved tougher ethics rules and the creation of an independently appointed Ethics Commission to rule on suspected ethics violations.

Voters in November agreed to extend the reach of those ethics reform measures from just County Commission-controlled departments to the governments of all cities, towns and villages. That gives the inspector general, Sheryl Steckler, the power to scrutinize county and municipal governments, looking for fraud, waste and abuse in contracts or the actions of elected officials, government employees and those doing business with local governments. When Steckler and her investigators find suspected criminal wrongdoing, they pass the case to McAuliffe's office for potential prosecution. "Numerous" referrals from Steckler, who started work in June, are under active investigation by the State Attorney's Office, McAuliffe said. "I regularly talk to Sheryl and we meet to make sure our efforts are coordinated," he said. The County Commission's most recent scandal also drew renewed local attention to Florida's Government in the Sunshine Law. After an investigation by McAuliffe's office, Jeff Koons resigned his seat on the County Commission and pleaded guilty to extortion as well as violating Florida's public records and meetings laws in his push to stifle opposition to an environmental project he supported. Now McAuliffe is suggesting changes to the Criminal Justice Commission, which he serves on, because of Sunshine Law concerns. The county created the Criminal Justice Commission in 1988 to coordinate law enforcement efforts and suggest how to direct funding for everything from victims services to youth programs. Its guidelines call for the State Attorney, sheriff, public defender, chief judge and other top officials to serve on the board.

The Sunshine Law calls for advisory boards and committees of local governments, such as the Criminal Justice Commission, to discuss public business at public meetings. That can be a problem for some members of the Criminal Justice Commission who often need to talk during the course of day-to-day law enforcement efforts, McAuliffe said. When those topics start to stray into issues that could be coming before the Criminal Justice Commission, McAuliffe said he and the other board members either need to stop talking and wait for the next meeting or risk running afoul of state law. Instead of seeking an exemption to the Sunshine Law, which would have to be approved by the Florida Legislature, McAuliffe proposes that he and the other top law enforcement officials step aside and appoint representatives from their office to serve on the Criminal Justice Commission. The County Commission would have to change the authorizing guidelines for the board to changes in representation. "It's sort of a natural time to review the issue," McAuliffe said. "We are in this window of reform. … It's naturally a part of this conversation." But the changes to the Criminal Justice Commission may need to go deeper than who serves on the board, according to County Commission Chairwoman Karen Marcus. She stepped down from the Criminal Justice Commission, and has also raised Sunshine Law concerns. In addition, Marcus has questions about possible "duplication" of efforts among the entities involved with the Criminal Justice Commission. The County Commission has called for the Criminal Justice Commission to give a report about its activities and to look for efficiencies. During a time of budget cutbacks due to the struggling economy, the goal is to ensure that the Criminal Justice Commission is "doing what we need to do," Marcus said. "We can't keep doing it the same," Marcus said. Andy Reid can be reached at or 561-228-5504.

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