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Abruzzo, ex-ethics honcho spar over audit: ‘This isn’t North Korea’

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State Sen. Joseph Abruzzo blasted the former executive director of the Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics Friday saying, “when a fish stinks, it usually starts at the top.”

nkoreaspy1108Abruzzo, D-Royal Palm Beach, made the remarks after an ethics commission meeting Thursday where former Executive Director Alan Johnson said Abruzzo is abusing his position as chairman of the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee to target the ethics commission by instigating an audit of the ethics commission that found numerous flaws in the commission’s procedures.

“This is a gross display of political power,” Johnson said Thursday, according to the Sun-Sentinel. “It just stinks so badly.”

Abruzzo ridiculed that idea.

Johnson saying “there is a misuse of political power is like Kanye West criticizing someone for having a radical ego,” Abruzzo said.

“Mr. Johnson should be more concerned with a state report exposing a flawed ethics process under his watch, rather than attempting to divert attention by attacking the legislative auditing committee who’s working to protect the people.”

At a meeting Monday in Tallahassee, the auditing committee agreed to ask the state attorney general’s office to investigate a Palm Beach County attorney’s accusation that recordings of an ethics commission meeting from January were tampered with.

The committee also agreed to ask the Palm Beach County Commission to suspend the ethics commission, but the county commission has no authority to do so. On Friday, Abruzzo said the ethics commission should stop accepting new cases until it complies with the recommendations of the audit by the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability.

Those recommendations included instituting clearer divisions between the commission’s investigative functions and how it arrives at its final rulings; making commissioners more aware of the dangers arising from potential conflicts of interests commissioners might have in cases that come before it; and increasing the training available to commissioners, who carry out quasi-legal functions but may have no background in law.

Abruzzo said his suggestion that the ethics commission suspend its operations until it complies with those guidelines isn’t an abuse of power.

He said he plans to file a bill next week with state Rep. Lake Ray, R-Jacksonville, that would establish standards for local ethics commissions.

In particular, Abruzzo’s bill would require ethics commissions to have a panel of sitting or retired judges making final determinations about ethics complaints, rather than untrained laymen wielding investigative, prosecution and judging powers at the same time.

“I suggest Mr. Johnson attend training with his former board. Maybe he will learn you should make allegations based on evidence and facts, not fantasy. And the fact is, no one government body should be the investigator, prosecutor, jury, judge, clerk of the court and the appellate process,” he said. “This is America, not North Korea.”

Johnson is now chief assistant to State Attorney Dave Aronberg. On Friday, he declined to respond directly to Abruzzo’s blast, but said he stood by his statements from Thursday’s ethics commission meeting.

“I will not descend into name-calling or finger-pointing,” he said.

However, Johnson repeated his criticism that the OPPAGA audit that took place at Abruzzo’s request was motivated by Abruzzo’s ties to Wellington heiress Victoria McCullough, whose attorney, Roma Theus, made the records-tampering accusation.

Johnson also said the tampering charge was baseless. Abruzzo’s position that the commission should suspend itself was unwarranted, he said.

The current controversy over the audit, Johnson maintained, is overshadowing the good the commission has accomplished since it was established in 2010 following a string of corruption prosecutions against Palm Beach County commissioners.

“People aren’t referring to Palm Beach County as ‘Corruption County’ anymore,” he said.

“If Mr. Abruzzo’s intentions are to make the system better, he should acknowledge, at least, that the system is good and commissioners are doing a good job,” he said. “People can draw their own conclusions from the fact.”

Meanwhile, ethics commission Executive Director Steve Cullen said Friday the commission has already resolved the problems it can or is working in that direction. Some of the audit’s recommendations, he said, are beyond the ethics commission’s powers because they’re not included in the ordinance that established it.

“We’ve already done most of the things OPPAGA suggests,” he said. “We’re trying to do everything we can short of changing the ordinance.”

As to the suggestion that the commission stop hearing cases, Cullen said there is no legal basis for it to do so.

“I don’t think the commission has jurisdiction to suspend itself,” he said.

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