Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Commission on Ethics Overrules the Commission on Ethics In a North Bay Village Special

Last week, the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics overruled the former Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court Gerald Kogan, while tossing aside the carefully crafted Voluntary Fair Campaign Practices Procedure. This Fair Campaign Pledge is designed to allow candidates who feel their opponent has engaged in unfair campaign practices to lodge a complaint with the COE through an expedited process. Both parties have to choose to accept the complaint heard for probable cause within 24 hours.

It's a good process. It means that complaints can be dealt with quickly and not overshadow a campaign. It prevents frivolous or baseless complaints from being used as a campaign tactic and in the case that probable cause is found, puts that information in the public view.

That's what happened in North Bay Village in the November 4 election. Incumbent Jorge Gonzalez complained that a flier challenger Mario Garcia put out unfairly represented Gonzalez's involvement in a bankruptcy, debt judgments, a paid trip to Turkey, and Gonzalez's voting record.

Gonzalez made the complaint (C14-51) and Garcia agreed to the expedited process. Hearing officer retired Florida Supreme Court judge Gerald Kogan evaluated the complaint and the response and found “No Probable Cause.”

In the meantime, Gonzalez won the election against Garcia.

In every single one of the election complaints, the Commission on Ethics Board has followed the recommendation of the hearing officer, referring those where probable cause has been found for further action and dismissing those where no probable cause was found. In fact, neither Joe Centorino, the COE Executive Director, nor anyone else can find a single example of the Board overrruling a “No Probable Cause” finding in any complaint ever filed in the COE history. Until now.

This brings up a host of questions without answers.

Why was this complaint uniquely passed to an entirely separate process? What fault was found in the hearing that justified that? The hearing on November 17 offers no clarity on that question because they are held in secret, behind closed doors. No members of the public are allowed although Commissioner Gonzalez was invited to stay.

What value does agreeing to the Voluntary Campaign Practices Ordinance bring a candidate if the COE staff decides they don't like the result and will arbitrarily continue to pursue the complaint after the finding? It seems like none.

Finally, why this unique decision on this one complaint. Well, again, the COE does not hold public hearings on why they would overrule a hearing officer. But there is a long and cozy relationship between the Advocate Michael Murawski, a resident of North Bay Village, and one side of the politically active North Bay Village community, a group that strongly supported Gonzalez's bid for election.

In the past, the COE has already treated North Bay Village differently. When the COE established that a commissioner and his wife had both their mobile phones paid for by North Bay Village over the course of 7 years, they said it was “done with good intentions” and refused to pursue repayment.

In another complaint against Mr. Gonzalez for not reporting a gift of tickets to the Miami Heat, they redacted their own press release to remove references to business relationships in North Bay Village and imposed no fine, just a $100 penalty to cover the COE costs.  

The list goes on. So maybe this is peculiar to North Bay Village. Maybe North Bay Village is so unique that the Commission on Ethics needs to invalidate the Voluntary Fair Campaign Practices Ordinance and summarily overrule the finding of one of the most respected jurists in the state.

Or maybe it's simply a case that local North Bay Village resident who also happens to be the Commission on Ethics Advocate didn't like the outcome and so decided to toss aside the process to get the outcome he wants? I think it's that one. 

Kevin Vericker
November 25, 2014

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