Lois Frankel’s ethics stink as bad as Alcee Hastings’

The Democrats are chomping at the bit to reclaim Florida’s 22nd Congressional District seat, snatched from them in 2010 by Allen West, R-Plantation. Although they need someone with the mental agility to match West’s talent for thinking on his feet, they also want someone free of corruption and controversy.

For example, they don’t need another Congressman Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar. While serving as a federal judge, a Hastings go-between accepted $25,000 as a down payment to a $150,000 bribe in exchange for a favorable ruling.

Former West Palm Beach Mayor Lois Frankel claims to have the moxie to confront West. Unlike Hastings, Frankel has never been impeached, was never found guilty of perjury and was never convicted by the U.S. Senate of conspiracy to accept a bribe. But that doesn’t make her lily-white. Frankel’s ethics appear to originate from the same primordial swamp as Hastings’.

A grand jury was convened in 2006 in response to reports of improprieties within West Palm Beach’s city government. The panel was tasked with determining whether city officials had engaged in corrupt practices relative to their contract negotiations. The grand jury released its report in January 2007, concluding, “There was a perception of ‘pay-to-play’ in which developers needed to pay to get projects moved forward.”

Supporting its conclusion, the grand jury made the following findings of fact: Developers seeking contracts with the city contributed “substantial sums of money to the campaign account of Mayor Lois Frankel.” The developers’ contributions ranged from $5,000 to $21,000, and were made concurrent with pending approval of the projects in which they held an interest. The contributions were made in $500 increments, from the developers, their subsidiaries and associated companies, as well as from the companies’ owners, officers, family members and friends.

Especially compelling was that a substantial percentage of the contributions came from people and firms outside of Palm Beach County, and even outside the state of Florida. What possible interest could a non-resident, especially a non-Floridian, have in Lois Frankel’s mayoral election other than to “pay to play”?

Audaciously, when rumors of city corruption surfaced in the summer of 2006, “Mayor Lois Frankel impaneled a City of West Palm Beach Ethics Committee, the members of which were handpicked by Mayor Lois Frankel,” the grand jury report said. One of the committee’s members was the mayor’s friend, state Rep. Mary Brandenburg, D-Lake Worth. In a separate opinion, the grand jury found that “Mary Brandenburg met with volunteer members of a non-profit organization and instructed that the way to successfully conduct business in the City of West Palm Beach was to write substantial checks to the mayor’s campaign account.” The grand jury found Brandenburg’s conduct both appalling and unethical, and said her actions reflected the city government’s “pay-to-play” atmosphere.

Because of the trust we place in our elected officials, they’re admonished to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. Mayor Frankel’s act of handpicking the ethics committee members was akin to asking the neighborhood burglar to keep an eye on your house while you’re gone. When you come home and discover you’ve been robbed blind, Brandenburg was the one who tells you what it’s going to cost to get your things back.

Notwithstanding its findings, the grand jury said it “uncovered no evidence of any ‘quid pro quo’ connecting the Mayor with any political contribution during its investigation.” It’s not my place to substitute my reasoning for that of the grand jury. I’ll only say this: Frankel should’ve played Lotto that day.

In its summation, the grand jury included the last half of an oft-quoted line by John Dalberg Acton, the first Baron Acton: “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Given that she’s now running for Congress, clearly Frankel didn’t take the hint.

In June, the National Legal and Policy Center filed a complaint against Frankel with the Federal Election Commission alleging she failed to list virtually all her congressional campaign expenses in order to give the appearance of a more successful campaign. According to the NLPC, the matter is still under FEC review.

If Frankel didn’t lie in the same swamp as Alcee Hastings, she certainly got close enough to acquire some if its odor. After having dodged the bullet, she should now count her blessings and emulate Douglas MacArthur’s “old soldier.” She should fade away — preferably into obscurity.

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