Sunday, April 12, 2015

To the Editor: An Assault on Ethics

To the Editor:

The Leroy Collins Institute is a non-partisan, state-wide policy organization which, it asserts, “studies and promotes creative solutions to key public issues facing the people of Florida.” In 2012, reporting on “The Ethics Policy Gap,” the Institute revealed that Florida has long been ethically challenged; that its state-level ethics laws and enforcement are essentially frozen in time; that “Florida has a well-documented problem of public corruption at every level of government; and that the “State Integrity Investigation’s Corruptions Risk Report Card gave Florida an overall C–minus grade for corruption risk and an F grade for ethics enforcement agencies.”

Fast forward to 2015. Has anything changed this dismal picture? Christine Robinson, a sitting Sarasota County Commissioner, has accepted simultaneous employment as the paid executive-director of the Argus Foundation, which makes no secret of its mission as a lobbying force. Indeed, its website proudly proclaims that “Membership represents major economic, business and professional interests in the community. . . . we are in a position to advise and assist public officials in decisionsthat will affect the life-style, environment, and economic well-being of our area now and in the future.”

There has been a public outcry against this dual role of legislator/lobbyist, a blatant, thumb-in-the-eye assault on morality in government. More than 700 citizens have petitioned Ms. Robinson to resign one of her positions. Numbers of individuals complained of her dual role at a public session of the County Commission and demanded she resign one of her two positions, asserting she cannot in good faith simultaneously serve two masters. She has shrugged off the outcry.

What constitutes a conflict of interest? No need to speculate. On a state-wide basis, Fla. Stats, section 112.312 (8), under the chapter titled “Code Of Ethics for Pubic Officers,” provides that “conflict of interest means a situation in which regard for a private interest tends to lead to disregard of a pubic duty or interest.” On a county-wide basis, Section 2-121 of the Sarasota County Code of Ordinances, titled “Declaration of Policy,” declares that “No officer . . . of Sarasota County . . . shall have any interest, financial or otherwise, direct or indirect . . . which is in substantial conflict with the proper discharge of his duties in the public interest.”

Section 2-123 (2) follows up with this unequivocal prohibition: “Every public official of Sarasota County . . . shall adhere to the following standards of ethical conduct while holding office: he shall hold no other employment . . . which is incompatible with the performance of his pubic duty.” So, does Ms. Robinson’s occupation of a seat on the County Commission and her simultaneous paid employment as the head of an influential lobby ”tend” to lead to a “disregard of her public duty?” Is her paid position with Argus a “financial interest” in “substantial conflict” with her obligation to act exclusively in the “public interest?” Is her employment by Argus “incompatible with the performance of her public duty?”

I submit that to ask these questions is to answer them. For the conflict of interest of which I complain is not questionable or borderline. It is brazen, breathtaking. To ensure that Florida’s poor reputation for ethics in government continues undiminished, the County Attorney has opined that Ms. Robinson’s conduct is not “illegal” [a conclusion both questionable and irrelevant on the issue of what is “ethical”]. Moreover, all the other four commissioners blessed Ms Robinson’s dual role. Not one of them had the spine to protest the clear ethical violation.

Many have demanded that Ms. Robinson resign one or the other of her two positions. I do not offer her that much slack. I suggest that her assault on ethics in government requires that she resign her commission seat. By her betrayal of the public trust she has forfeited the public confidence that would be necessary for her to be effective going forward.

                                                                                Frank Brenner
                                                                                Sarasota County

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