Three county commissioners have resigned since 2006 during corruption investigation
The Florida Sun-Sentinel - May 27, 2009
WEST PALM BEACH, FL - Palm Beach County needs a full-time, independent government watchdog empowered to clean up public corruption, according to a state grand jury report. Three county commissioners and two West Palm Beach commissioners getting swept up in a federal corruption investigation prompted a review by the state grand jury. The grand jury was asked to make recommendations for restoring public trust in local government. The lead proposal released Wednesday calls for establishing an Office of Inspector General, modeled after a position created to clean up corruption in Miami-Dade County. The office could "ferret out waste, fraud and abuse in county governance," said State Attorney Michael McAuliffe. The grand jury also called for changes to the way Palm Beach County borrows money and buys land. In addition, the grand jury recommended changes to state law to make it easier to prosecute public officials for corruption. Setting up a hot line and creating a Palm Beach County ethics commissioner were among the other changes proposed by the grand jury. The grand jury was not pursuing individual criminal charges, but was determining whether acts of corruption and misconduct could be addressed through existing enforcement programs and, if not, what tools are needed. Its findings offer a way to heal the "crisis of trust" resulting from the ongoing federal investigations, McAuliffe said. "What is needed now is the aftercare ... restoring health to our community," McAuliffe said. "This can be an opportunity to do good." McAuliffe and the 21-member grand jury conducted a three-month review to explore ways to stop corruption in Palm Beach County.
The dozens of witnesses who appeared before the grand jury included county commissioners and other elected officials as well as business leaders and government employees, according to the report. McAuliffe still could pursue corruption charges of his own. He said Wednesday that his "public integrity unit" has matters under investigation. Creating the new inspector general position could be a tough sell when Palm Beach County faces a potential $90 million budget shortfall. McAuliffe said the position would "pay for itself" by helping curtail corruption and waste. "We can't afford not to do it," McAuliffe said. County Commission Chairman Jeff Koons said the county would review the grand jury's recommendations. But he questioned whether creating the inspector general position was necessary. "We had some individual commissioners take bad actions, [but] it hasn't shown that there is a systemic corruption in our system," Koons said. County Commissioner Jess Santamaria countered that Palm Beach County needs to follow the grand jury's recommendations. "Business as usual is no longer an option. Things have got to change," said Santamaria, who replaced imprisoned Tony Masilotti on the commission. "Any type of scrutiny, any type of overseeing should be welcomed."
In addition to creating the inspector general's office, the grand jury called for:
- Ending the practice of county commissioners appointing financial companies to a rotation that handles county bond deals. The grand jury instead called for a bids process.
- Reinstating a land valuation committee to add transparency to how the county buys and sells land.
- Toughening county rules about interactions with lobbyists and making it a criminal violation, a second-degree misdemeanor, to violate county ethics rules.