City, County Attorneys Should Be First Line of Defense Against Corruption -- So Where Are They?
Legal advisers to Broward governments should have a sharper eye for elected officials' conflicts.
Broward County governments are each supposed to be protected by a single attorney who can advise them on how to steer clear of the kinds of conflicting interests that could land them in jail. So the recent windfall of prison terms and indictments suggests that those legal advisers aren't doing their jobs. That conclusion seems at least half-right.
Unfortunately, many attorneys who advise local governments are keenly aware that they have to stay in the good graces of a majority of commissioners, or those commissioners might vote to have them terminated.
So for self-preservation's sake, that attorney gets in the habit of telling members of the commission majority what they want to hear.
Clearly, the attorneys' first concern should be preserving the integrity of the elected body. When a commissioner asks for an opinion about whether he has a conflict that makes it necessary to recuse himself, the legal advice should be to err on the side of caution.
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Further, an attorney in this role should press the elected official for a full disclosure about potential conflicts. In this respect, Sunrise provides a good example. Commissioner Don Rosen asked City Attorney Stuart Michelson for an opinion about whether Rosen's past dealings with the recycling company Green Now made it necessary for him to abstain from a vote on the controversial recycling center the company planned for the city's borders.
Michelson asked the Florida Commission on Ethics for an opinion on the matter, but the FCE formed its opinion based on Michelson's report about the facts of the case -- and for that he relied on Rosen. It's foolhardy to trust an official to always give a full and honest accounting of his potential conflicts -- and, in Rosen's case, Commissioner Sheila Alu was quite sure that a few choice facts were left out.
To understand the dangers of giving an incomplete disclosure to one's legal adviser, see this week's case against former Broward County Commissioner Diana Wasserman-Rubin. She asked two different county attorneys -- over four years -- whether it appropriate for her to vote on grants that were written by her husband, Richard Rubin. Those county attorneys both said yes -- so long as she didn't have private gains. But according to state prosecutors, Wasserman-Rubin enjoyed huge private gains from her husband's grant-writing. From the Sun-Sentinel:
"Between 2003 and 2008, the Rubins paid for artwork, vacations, trips to Europe, cruises, home renovations, and furniture with the money he received from the town," state attorney's investigator Joseph Roubicek wrote.
Three days after Wasserman-Rubin voted on grants in June 2004, the couple started building a $150,000 home addition, the investigator wrote.
Wasserman-Rubin continued to vote on the grants, and her husband received three separate bonuses of $15,000 each in addition to his salary, according to the criminal charges.
These ethical wrestling matches can get downright comical, as they have in Deerfield Beach with Commissioner Sylvia Poitier.
This past year, the longtime Broward County commissioner assured the public that she did not have a financial interest in a nonprofit corporation of which her daughter serves as president. That nonprofit, the Westside Deerfield Businessmen Association, relied on city commissioners to keep the registration it needed to continue collecting public housing dollars.
If she didn't have a financial interest, then Poitier was obligated to vote, ruled Deerfield City Attorney Andy Maurodis. Strangely, Poitier didn't want to vote -- and she refused to do so, citing the "appearance" of a conflict of interest.
Of course, if Poitier does have a financial stake in WDBA, then merely abstaining from a vote isn't going to save her. Otherwise, Keith Wasserstrom might still be a commissioner in Hollywood.
In that case, Wasserstrom did paid lobbying work for a sludge processing firm. When it came time for Hollywood commissioners to vote on the sludge contract, Wasserstrom simply left the room. As part of his criminal defense, Wasserstrom pointed out that the city attorney, Dan Abbott, approved of this arrangement. State prosecutors, however, did not. In the complaint to follow, they argued that even if Wasserstrom didn't vote for the contract, he relied upon other aspects of his political position to aid the contract. By taking Abbott's advice, Wasserstrom exposed himself to a 60-day jail sentence.
Hallandale Beach has problems with its city attorney, David Jove, who during his decade or so in office has hitched his wagon to the commission majority that supported City Manager Mike Good. But since Good was ousted, new light has been thrown onto questionable legal decisions that Jove made, seemingly in deference to Good. Signing off on Good's contract with realtor Joe Kessel is one vivid example.
Commissioner Keith London, a member of that body's minority, complains that Jove either tells the majority of commissioners what they want to hear or hires outside counsel -- at city expense -- to give an opinion that commissioners may not want to hear.
There's no simple solution to this problem. It's hard to persuade city and county attorneys to give tough love to the commissioners who can fire them. Just as it's hard to persuade those commissioners that a legal adviser who's a stickler for ethics can save them from their worst impulses. But maybe this recent batch of corruption cases will be a helpful reminder about how the two are supposed to work together.
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