Southwest Ranches Town Manager John Canada is officially above the law.
The man who runs the Ranches, that wealthy rural "horse community" in the southwest corner of Broward County, isn't beholden to the state's Code of Ethics. That means a conflict of interest is no conflict at all for Pat Canada, John's wife and employee. He can hire all the relatives he wants to help him run the town. And the state can't touch him.
The Florida Attorney General's Office says so. In a ruling made public last week, an assistant attorney general determined that government officials with private contracts aren't beholden to the state ethics code. There are numerous such "quasi-public" officials operating in Florida, including Canada and Pembroke Pines manager Charlie Dodge in Broward County.
The message of that ruling: Want to have a cheating, dishonest government? All you gotta do is privatize.
The town's own elected officials were blindsided by the ruling.
"It is unbelievable," says Commissioner Jeff Nelson, who has been on a near one-man mission to clean up the town. "It just doesn't make any sense at all."
That lack of sense didn't prevent the ethics commission from dropping conflict-of-interest and nepotism charges against Canada during a hearing on March 3. The case was based on complaints filed by Ranches' citizens after New Times published "Cash Cow," an investigative report on the town last March 24.
"I thought it was a slam-dunk," says Fred Cox, an activist in the town.
It sure seemed like it. At the time the complaints were made, Canada was running the town like it was a family check-cashing business. His wife Pat was the town's finance director (and still is). His daughter, Shari, was the town's Clerk of Court (she's since moved on to a job with the City of Hallandale Beach).
Canada also had a consulting job with the Broward Sheriff's Office at the same time he was administering the town's contract with that same law enforcement agency.
The town had other serious problems (including huge payments made to political insiders Richard Rubin, the husband of Broward County Commissioner Diana Wasserman-Rubin, and land broker Ira Cor). But the nepotism and BSO conflict seemed an easy fix. Slam Canada with ethics charges, fine him, and force him to change his ways.
Ethics commission investigator Bob Malone determined that Canada was indeed in violation, but Assistant Attorney General Pete Peterson made the case moot when he determined that Canada, due to his private status, didn't have to follow the law.
I talked to Peterson this past Wednesday, the day the ruling was made public. He sounded almost apologetic, but insisted his decision was based on previous legal opinions.
"I do not think the result is in the best interest of the government," Peterson told me.
I mentioned a Florida Supreme Court ruling that private companies that "perform the public function in place of the public body" fall under the state's Sunshine Laws. I asked him why those same companies shouldn't be forced to adhere to the Code of Ethics as well.
Peterson basically answered that it was apples and oranges. I don't agree, but I suppose he made what he believed to be the legally correct ruling. And unfortunately, these kinds of things often fall in the favor of unscrupulous government officials.
"This is something that the ethics commission has determined needs to be addressed by the legislature," Peterson said, adding that his boss, Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist, is backing a bill to force "quasi-public entities" to fall under some ethics laws.
Great. That sounded like there was a bill in the works that will shut down Canada's racket. But I looked up the legislation Peterson was talking about and found there was a problem with it. It only counts for "quasi-public entities" that do work for the state. Municipalities aren't included, confirmed Crist spokeswoman JoAnn Carrin.
And that means it won't touch Canada.
Are you listening, South Florida legislators? We need a bill that will bring all private contractors who step into the shoes of government under the jurisdiction of the state's Code of Ethics and criminal laws governing public officials.
Until that happens, it's up to the town to clean itself up. And Nelson and other council members have already voted to create independent finance and clerk departments, outside the direct control of Canada. But because that involves a change to the town's charter, the measure will need to be approved by the town's voters in the months to come.
"There aren't any checks and balances in Southwest Ranches in regard to oversight," Nelson points out. "John Canada incorporates his own programs and systems. His wife was the finance director and his daughter at one time was the town clerk. When it comes to checks and balances, they're just nonexistent."
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No checks and balances? No problem for John Canada, who didn't respond to my interview requests. Council member Don Maines said the town manager informed him of his good fortune shortly after the ethics commission made its decision. "The first thing he told me was that he was completely exonerated and there were no findings against him whatsoever and he feels really good about it," Maines reports.
Canada was so sure of himself that he didn't even attend the March 3 hearing in Tallahassee. Instead, he sent his attorney, Stuart Michelson, who is the husband of Broward County Commissioner Ilene Lieberman.
"I'm dumbfounded by politics to start with and what I've learned in that process is mind-boggling in terms of how people can get away with things," Maines continues. "It's not just this case. It's across the board."
And that's why John Canada must be smiling today. There's no feeling like being above the law, after all.