Monday, August 12, 2013

Ethics At A Discount

The Commission on Ethics decided that for not declaring a gift of arena suites, North Bay Village Vice Mayor Eddie Lim and Commissioner Jorge Gonzalez need to pay $100 each to reimburse the Commission on Ethics for bothering them.  The COE did not levy a fine.   

The Commission on Ethics reports the value of the tickets at $110 to $140 each although a quick look through Seatgeek shows a much higher price for suites at next year's Atlanta Hawks game.

That's what the Commission on Ethics thinks it is worth to break county and municipal codes regarding the disclosure of gifts from people doing business with the government $0 and a "reimbursement" to the COE for their troubles of somewhere between 72% and 90% of the gift value received.  

The short version of what happened, according to the complaints filed with the Ethics Commission, is that on December 10, Lim and Gonzalez accepted an invitation from Pedro Cheng of Asia Connect Medial Corporation to join him in a suite at the American Airlines Arena to see the Heat and Hawks play.   Asia Connect is putting together a package for Turkish investors to buy in North Bay Village and needs commission support for it to happen.   

Lim and Gonzalez accepted the gift and attended the game.  They never reported the gift as required by law and an ethics complaint was filed against them.  

There are so many things wrong with this scenario.   

Accepting an expensive gift from someone seeking favors to do business with the city you govern is legal.  It shouldn't be but it is.   It is difficult to believe that the gift was simply a good hearted gesture based on a shared love of the game.  

The Sunshine Laws in Florida prohibit private meetings where government business is discussed and is specifically about these sort of events.  Although Gonzalez and Cheng have known each other for some time according to the statement given by Jorge Gonzalez to Ethics, Lim and Cheng were new friends.  There may have been no discussion but it certainly gives the impression that there may have been.  

That alone should have been enough for both Gonzalez and Lim to have declined the offer of tickets.  The appearance of impropriety in governance is as destructive as impropriety itself.  There's simply no reasonable way to conclude that the gift was a spontaneous act of generosity from a well wisher.

In fact, I'm sure it was that appearance of impropriety that caused them to not report the gift.  I attended the same Ethics workshop with Eddie Lim and the Commission on Ethics could not have been clearer about the need to report such gifts.   But this gift was not reported.  

I asked Rhonda Sibilia the COE spokesperson why such a paltry fine.  I asked why not at least the cost of the tickets.  She replied, 

The $100 was charged for investigative costs and has nothing to do with the value of the gift.  The two were charged with an ethics complaint for failure to report receiving a gift in excess of $100 in value.  Because both gentlemen responded immediately when informed of their oversight, the potential fine of $500 was waived.
In other words, the law could have fined them up to $500 each, but the COE was not interested in this.  The $100 is a token amount to reimburse for the cost of a cut rate investigation.   The COE does not intend to send a message about accepting gifts and skirting the  edges of Sunshine.  They just wanted it closed.  

This doesn't rise to the level of the scandals alleged in Sweetwater and Miami Lakes, far from it.  But it does compromise our ability to trust our commission.  

Jorge Gonzalez and Eddie Lim seldom meet with constituents and have offered virtually no legislation, nor have either worked on any city initiatives beyond the Farmers Market.  Yet they found time and reason to socialize with people seeking special treatment for profit and enjoy VIP seats in the process.   

The COE left the obvious concern aside by not fining for this violation.  Their judgment that the only issue was the late reporting of a gift and it was not worthy of penalty speaks volumes about how they view ethics.  This is pretty discouraging but not surprising.  When it comes to North Bay Village, Joe Centorino's Commission on Ethics have always played politics and seldom dealt with Ethics.  
We're in a bad place when this is way we accept our government.  

Kevin Vericker
August 12, 2013.  

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