Thursday, January 30, 2014

Commission on Ethics is a Joke. By Eston Melton III


The Miami Herald refused to publish an opinion piece Dusty Melton submitted last month regarding the County's Commission on Ethics and Public Trust. Kudos to Michael Lewis, publisher of Miami Today, for providing a public forum. The so-called Ethics Commission has never gotten the critical scrutiny by local media that it deserves, and Dusty has provided the first, important exposure in Mainstream Media of its highly questionable behavior of late (we have been ragging on them for a long time and Al Crespo has been all over them.). Let this be the start of some serious media digging, we hope.  We and other blogs are dismissed by Ethics but they don't do anything anyway so I don't care.

'Dusty" Eston Melton III

Illegal lobbying at Miami-Dade County Hall is commonplace.

All of the political regulars, folks like me, know it. We see it all around, all the time. It's blatant, in plain sight of county commissioners, the mayor, his senior administrators, everyone.

And it's becoming even more common, thanks to the county's very own Commission on Ethics and Public Trust.

Make that, the Commission on so-called "Ethics" and so-called "Public Trust."

Here's a recent example:

Miami International Airport solicited sealed bids on a construction project. Three teams competed. The lowest bidder's price was $87 million. The second-lowest bidder was about $9 million more expensive. The third bidder was some $20 million higher than the lowest bidder.

The second-lowest bidder hired two attorneys at two separate Coral Gables law firms. Those lawyers sent exhaustive letters to county officials in an attempt to steer the contract to their common client, $9 million more expensive than the lowest bidder.

This is known as "lobbying," trying to influence the decisions of public officials. By writing their letters to decision-makers at the airport, the attorneys also were "lobbyists."

Both attorneys knew that the rules require each to file certain forms, one a sworn affidavit, prior to lobbying the county in any manner, including their letters. We know that because each of them had filed lobbyist registration forms before.

Still, both attorneys failed to register and disclose their lobbyist activity as required by code. Each simply broke the law, and did so identically.

Complaints were filed against both attorneys with the Commission on "Ethics" and "Public Trust."

What a joke that became.

Investigators interviewed each attorney. Both confessed; the investigators' reports are proof. The clear violations of rules by both attorneys were presented in writing to the "ethics" commission on Sept. 12, 2013.

Lawyer No. 1 was fined $500 and sent a letter of reprimand for violating the rules. Justice was served -– unacceptable behavior had serious consequences.

Lawyer No. 2, who enjoys an exquisite relationship with the members of the "ethics" commission and its senior staff -– a colleague at his law firm was the "ethics" commission's founding executive director -- was given a free pass:

Case dismissed. No fine. No letter. No consequences at all.

Two attorneys. Same shared client. Same lobbying-by-letters. Same zero compliance with the lobbyist registration rules thoroughly known to both of them. Same county code violation. One attorney gets stung. The other attorney gets a friendly wave goodbye.

These starkly different outcomes, by unanimous votes of the "ethics" commission, were and still are appalling.

Even worse, the public was kicked out of the "ethics" commission's meeting when the two complaints were presented, discussed and decided. That's their "secret session" rule. Well, not entirely secret. The county code violators and their attorneys were allowed to stay in the meeting room, and to cut their penalty deals out of the public eye.

The chairman of the "ethics" commission was asked, in writing, to explain why Lawyer No. 2 was given a free pass for the identical county code violation that earned Lawyer No. 1 a fine and public reprimand.

Four months later: no response.

Here's my take on the "ethics" commission:

1. If you are an insider, like Lawyer No. 2, you can break the rules and get away with it.

2. Thanks to that fact, increasingly known in the community of political operatives, illegal lobbying is getting worse at Miami-Dade County Hall.

3. If you challenge the "ethics" commission's blatant favoritism by merely asking for an explanation, you will be stonewalled and insulted. (Genius: OMG this is so true)

A recurring theme at several of the "ethics" commission's recent monthly meetings has been a self-congratulatory discussion about how well it is elevating the ethical conduct of our community.

If only its five members and senior staff would reflect on the "look-the-other-way" bias they show toward insiders who violate the rules, perhaps they might understand what an absolute joke their discussions truly are.

More on Dusty:

Eston "Dusty" Melton is chairman of Global Projects Inc. He is a local, non-lawyer lobbyist who registered to represent the lowest responsive bidder for the contract in question.

Say what you will about local lobbyists – and we've had plenty bad to say here at EOM – but Dusty Melton at least corrects my typos occasionally. A former Miami Herald reporter (he covered County Hall from early 1979 to late 1981) and then the newspaper's political writer and columnist through September 1982, he actually understands how local government works and  respects our blog (well at least he reads it).

Dusty has always had a strong charity component in his 31-year practice, including pro bono clients Farm Share, the Coconut Grove Sailing Club, Shake-A-Leg, the National MS Society, among others. He was an early, ardent and very public opponent of illegal outdoor advertising signs, especially in the City of Miami. As a member of the Southern Region Board of the Boy Scouts, in 2000 he was one of the highest-ranking volunteers to resign in protest of the BSA's Supreme Court victory allowing it to discriminate against homosexuals, and is a leader today in the movement to change that very stupid policy. Along the way, he has earned a reputation for honesty, integrity and operating by the rules.


Geniusofdespair said...

Good job Dusty, the Ethics Department needs to re invent itself and actually do something.

Anonymous said...

A $500 fine is not justice served.

Anonymous said...

We always called it the fig leaf commission especially when dealing with their bosses on BCC.. yes I know, they're "independent" LOL..

Just amazing after all their profroma lectures on "transparency" , they manage to keep their names and salaries off the county web site.

Anonymous said...

This seems to indicate that there are no ethics within the Ethics Commission. Why are there secret meetings to determine guilt or innocence? The column not being printed by the Miami Herald op ed page shows a lack of fairness by the editorial page.

Steve said...

Even lobbyist complaining about the ethics department that should tell you something. Joe Centorino you are better than this. You give to much power to underlings.

Anonymous said...

This column proves one thing: the Miami Herald sucks.

Anonymous said...

Why did one lobbyist get off without any penalty? Why was the penalty to the lobbyist found guilty so low?

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Dusty, for your contribution. The Miami Herald's disinterest in publishing such a provocative piece makes me wince.

Anonymous said...

What pressure needs to be applied to overhaul this commission? In Atlanta, "Rather than adjust its current policy, Forsyth County decided to reconstruct the entire ethics board, replacing the five local members with a three-member tribunal of out-of-county attorneys. The new code went into effect in November, although the old board still has one case it must hear before dissolving."

Remove the politics and increase the professionalism. Where are the legal consequences to each member of this commission for allowing such corruption? A decision, such as the one described, is a breach of trust. I am still angry about the decision that Linda and Jenna Bell's fencing company did not benefit from Linda's BCC chain link fence ordinance change based on the Ethics Commissions opinion that a fence is not a mandatory purchase compared to ACA insurance.

Did each member have to take an oath? If so, that's been broken. How many breeches of conduct will go unchecked? Or will it take a law suit so the commission gets disbanded to save the expense of defending the board's decisions in court?

Anonymous said...

I think it would take a lawsuit filed in a Federal Court to get Miami Dade County in line. The Circuit Court judges, like the State Attorney are elected, locally. The campaigns are intermingled with political operatives, not necessarily the elected official, on purpose.

I'm also mad about the Porter violation Mark Bell filed, yet alleged AB violator working for his campaign is probably going to walk.

I think $500 is BS. I think penalty of disbarment is what is called for as it relates to an attorney who has no excuse for not knowing the laws their breaking, including ethical issues.

Anonymous said...

$500 = BS?
No, that's one hour's worth of billable work, sir.

Nadine Johnson said...

Kudos to Dusty for writing this piece. I am disappointed that the Miami Herald refused to print it. They should be ashamed! Dusty's life speaks loud and clear to me. He is correct that we have a lot of cleaning up to do in Miami-Dade County!

Anonymous said...

Tip O'Neill was right, "All politics is local".

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Dusty does excellent research and he brings up important points. What is the problem with the Miami Herald? Why didn't the Herald assign a reporter to this story?

Anonymous said...

I think the Herald shuns these stories because politician's on the take is so commonplace it's barely newsworthy here.. Now if a crack whore steals your Mercedes at 3 in the morning from the flop house your two have been binging in for two days, you may get some ink on page three, but political's bagman gets slap on the wrist? Nope, nothing to see here, keep moving..

Anonymous said...

The entire system is corrupt. The absentee ballot fraud alone is staggering. The person charged with the responsibility of prosecuting public corruption [State Attorney] employed Al Lorenzo.
The person charged with staffing the public corruption [County Mayor] also employed Al Lorenzo and dismantled public corruption infrastructure.
This is a game the ordinary citizen cannot win.
The Ethics Commission is a joke. The cost of any ethical and corrupt lapse by an official is pay a $500 fine at best and if you know someone at Ethics well then it falls into the legally insufficient category so there is no penalty. It is a selective process and the facts speak for themselves as told by Dusty.
This county requires an elected Sheriff apart from the bureaucrats running all aspects of enforcement of laws. The commingling of agencies, funding and oversight by the BCC and strong mayor has failed.

Ernie said...

Great article!

It shows that they don't call Joe Centorino "Let'em Go Joe" for nothing! What a sleaze!

Our unethical ethics commission director Centorino is paid an outrageous $200k/year. That makes me sick!

Anonymous said...

I noticed at a County Commission Meeting a couple weeks ago that there Cone of Silence and Sunshine Law Violations alleged against a selection committee made up of members of the State Attorneys' Office.

How do you think the Director of the Ethics Commission (a former SAO employee himself) opined on that?

Anonymous said...

Dusty is right to be pissed, but he is just scratching the surface on why the commission's lobbyist regulations stink.

I attended the mandatory lecture on ethics. The room was packed with men and women in hospital gear. They had to attend because their companies sell pharmaceuticals and equipment to Jackson. How dumb is that?

The other illegal lobbying that goes on is with the folks who stand before the board claiming to be representatives of all kinds of groups. The ethics law requires these folks to register and take the insulting class (thanks Ma Bell) even though they represent mostly poor people. Nobody challenges them though they are violating the law.

The ethics law also abridges the constitution's protections we are all afforded to petition our government. But who cares about that pesky document?

People like to think that the government can somehow legislate ethical behavior. Dusty is showing us all how vacuous that proposition really is.

Anonymous said...

Joe Centorino is useless. We need the FBI or some aggressive Federal Agency here cracking heads. Who is investigating Steve Marin, Al Lorenzo and Francois Ilias?

Anonymous said...

Dusty Melton would make a great investigative reporter. His clients better appreciate his abilities.

Yaz said...

I am pretty sure Melton was originally a reporter for the Herald. Definitely an atypical lobbyist. Not everyone likes him, but no one questions his integrity. He is a boyscout leader, too.

Anonymous said...

I have never met an honest person who dislikes Dusty Melton.

Anonymous said...

Why aren't "Miami Herald" or "Miami Today" editors assigning reporters to this story?