By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
UPDATE: Dec. 16 – Five current and former Deerfield Beach commissioners have been cleared of accusations that they broke state conflict of interest and gift disclosure laws.
The Florida Ethics Commission said last week that it found no probable cause to believe that any of the five had improperly accepted free tickets to a city festival from a local lobbyist, or that they had failed to disclose them as gifts as required by law.
The five are Vice Mayor Marty Popelsky and former Commissioners Pam Militello, Sylvia Poitier and Steve Gonot and ex-Mayor Al Capellini. The complaint was filed by local activist Chaz Stevens based on the findings of a city-funded audit by Kessler International that raised questions about possible misuse of the tickets in 2006 and 2007.
Poitier, Gonot and Capellini, however, continue to deal with various other criminal matters. Poitier faces sentencing on Jan. 11 following her November conviction on four misdemeanor counts of falsifying public records. Gonot is appealing his conviction last spring on grand theft and other charges. Capellini is awaiting trial on a charge of unlawful compensation.
Oct. 31 – After months of quiet investigation, the Florida Commission on Ethics will hold a closed-door hearing in early December to decide whether there is probable cause to believe that five current or former Deerfield Beach city commissioners broke state conflict of interest and gift disclosure laws.
Those to face hearings are Vice Mayor Marty Popelsky, former Mayor Albert Capellini and ex-city commissioners Sylvia Poitier, Steve Gonot and Pam Militello, according to ethics commission correspondence obtained by Broward Bulldog.
For Capellini, Poitier and Gonot, the Dec. 2 Tallahassee hearing is their latest legal woe. Capellini awaits trial Dec. 5 on a charge of unlawful compensation. Poitier is set to go to trial in two weeks in Broward Circuit Court on five unrelated misdemeanor counts of falsifying public records. In July, Gonot was sentenced to 364 days in jail and five years’ probation following his conviction on campaign-finance related charges of official misconduct, grand theft and falsifying records. He remains free pending his appeal.
Militello, who lost a re-election bid in 2009, sponsored the city’s ethics law after the unrelated corruption arrests of both Gonot and Capellini in December 2008.
The ethics commission probe began in the wake of complaints filed last December by Deerfield Beach muckraking activist and blogger Timothy “Chaz” Stevens, 47, shortly after an independent audit report detailed alleged “exploitation and gross financial mismanagement” of taxpayer dollars to pay for large street festivals.
The audit by Kessler International included evidence that commissioners obtained multiple tickets and parking passes to festivals in 2006, and in the case of Militello, also in 2008.
One city document “lists 262 tickets given to Commissioner Poitier” for that year’s Mango Festival, Stevens wrote in a complaint letter to the ethics commission. The face value of each ticket was $35; parking passes cost $10.
Gonot and Militello requested dozens of tickets and multiple parking passes for the same festival, according to Stevens’ complaint. Popelsky requested three dozen tickets and nine parking passes; Capellini received 18 tickets, the complaints say.
In his Nov. 29, 2010 audit cover letter to City Attorney Andrew Maurodis, company president Michael Kessler stated that “interviews and supporting documentation” showed that Poitier, Gonot and Militello “saw an opportunity to capitalize on at least one of these street festivals and secured blocks of tickets for free and distributed the tickets to garner political support.”
Stevens, a professional software developer who operates MyActsofSedition.com, alleged in separate complaints that Poitier, Gonot and Militello took those tickets and parking passes and then failed to report them on the state’s required gift disclosure forms. The complaints also contend that because all three later voted to approve city funding for the festivals, they should have filed with the city clerk – but did not – a state “Memorandum of Voting Conflict” form.
Tamarac lawyer and former Broward School Board member Kevin P. Tynan, who represents Gonot, and Deerfield Beach attorney A. Thomas Connick Jr., who represents Militello, both said they received a report about the investigation that suggests it has boiled down to a single question: whether the tickets should have been disclosed by city commissioners on gift disclosure forms.
“It clearly was indicated by the investigator that there was no one at the city that thought that this was considered to be a reportable gift,” said Connick. He said does not know if Militello intends to attend the probable cause hearing.
Neither Connick nor Tynan would agree to release the report about the investigation, which is not yet public.
Popelsky could not be reached for comment.
A lawyer for Capellini, Fort Lauderdale’s J. David Bogenshutz, said he believes it likely that the case against his client will be dropped at the hearing.
Sylvia Poitier’s Pompano Beach lawyer, Johnny L. McCray Jr., did not respond to a request for comment.
The ethics commission is a nine-member body that operates in secret until its members decide whether probable cause exists to believe that state ethics laws have been violated. If it finds no such cause, the complaint is dismissed. If it finds probable cause, a trial may be held. If a violation occurred, the commission can recommend a penalty to the governor.
Three of the commission’s current members are from Broward. They are Susan Horovitz Maurer, managing partner at the Fort Lauderdale law firm of Panza Maurer and Maynard; Pompano Beach attorney Linda M. Robison, a partner at Shutts & Bowen and Lighthouse Point businessman Roy Rogers.
The ethics commission correspondence that announced the December hearing last week is stamped “Confidential.” It says the hearing will be held Dec. 2 at 10 a.m. in Room 37S of the Senate Office Building. Under commission rules, only the accused, their attorneys and Stevens are allowed to attend.
The ethics commission’s “advocate” and the accused will each get five minutes to provide statements to the commission. No witnesses will be called, and no new evidence may be introduced. “The sole purpose of the probable cause hearing is to evaluate the results of the preliminary investigation,” the correspondence says.