PBC ethics commission under fire for ‘evidence tampering’; state orders ‘cease and desist’

A committee of state lawmakers is seeking a criminal investigation by the state attorney general’s office of a Palm Beach County attorney’s charge that audio records of a Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics were tampered with.

The Joint Legislative Auditing Committee also agreed Monday to send a “cease and desist” letter to the Palm Beach County Commission demanding that the ethics commission halt its operations until the tampering charge and other problems can be dealt with.

joeabruzzo1104The records-tampering charge by attorney Theus Roma arose during a Joint Legislative Auditing Committee Monday to hear the findings of an audit of the ethics commission requested by state Sen. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Wellington.

Roma, who represents Wellington resident Victoria McCullough, told the committee he hired a forensics investigator to inspect audio recordings of commission hearings that took place on Jan. 10 and Feb. 7. At the Jan. 10 meeting, Roma said, Ethics Commissioner Daniel Galo remarked that he was tired of hearing about “millionaires and billionaires fighting with each other.”

That remark cannot be heard on the recording of the meeting, Theus said, and his investigation had concluded that it had been erased.

In a short interview after the auditing committee broke, Theus said there is investigator had concluded there was a blank space from the erasing.

“Although it’s almost imperceptible, it’s there,” he said.

During the meeting, Abruzzo said he requested the audit because the ethics commission, established by the Palm Beach County Commission in 2009 after corruption prosecutions, had become a “political football” in county politics.

Ethics commission Executive Director Steve Cullen acknowledged the audit had revealed weaknesses in how the ethics commission operates, but said his office had begun a training course for ethics commissioners in legal procedure, based in part on his own record as an administrative law judge.

However, he said fundamental changes in the ethics commission’s structure and procedures would be up to the Palm Beach County Commission.

Cullen was unavailable for comment after Monday. Messages left with the ethics commission’s office in Palm Beach County were not returned Monday.

Among the chief problems the audit found are blurred between investigating complaints and deciding whether they merit prosecution, and the dual role of ethics commissioners themselves, who are charged with deciding both whether a complaint is justified with probable cause and then decide the outcome of the case.

That poses a special hazard if commissioners harbor a bias against someone appearing before it. Roma said that was the case with his client, whose wealth, he said, put her in a bad light.

“There are serious problems so far as protecting the constitutional rights of people” appearing before the ethics commission, he told the committee.

“The code of ethics should apply even-handedly to everyone,” he said.

In a four-decade career, Roma said, his experience representing McCullough before the ethics commission was unique.

“Never have I been in any procedure where I saw the likes of the behavior I saw at the Palm Beach Commission on Ethics,” he said.

After the meeting, he said his main goal was to get a public airing of his complaints about the ethics commission.

“I hope (lawmakers) would take some action,” he said. “It’s a beginning. It’s a strong beginning.”

After the hearing, Abruzzo said about half the members of the auditing committee — made up of members of the state House of Representatives and senators — had told him they were concerned about what Roma presented.

He said the Legislature needs to set standards for counties that wish to establish ethics commissions of their own.

“I wanted the Legislature to hear what is happening in Palm Beach County,” he said.

Joe Saunders

Joe Saunders, a 25-year newspaper veteran, is a staff writer and editor for BizPac Review who lives in Tallahassee and covers capital and Florida politics. Email Joe at [email protected].

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