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.