B. INITIAL POST – DUE DEC 13th. Use the following outline of four separate paragraphs when completing week three’s discussion post assignment. Be certain to Label Your Paragraphs With The Corresponding Numbers
1. Write a brief summary of the Menzel (2009) article related to the Pinellas county administrators from the case study presented reflecting on the ethical dilemma associated with his or her role in the scandal. (Be sure to use in text citations from this week’s readings and any supplemental readings)
2. Write a a brief explanation of how ethical reflection might have helped the Pinellas County public administrators avoid the ethical scandal described in Menzel’s case study. (Be sure to use in text citations from this week’s readings and any supplemental readings
3. Identify the county public administrator you selected and the ethical dilemma associated with his or her role in the scandal. (Be sure to use in text citations from this week’s readings and any supplemental readings
4. Explain whether the ethical dilemma you described in Paragraph 3 represents a conflict of authority, interest, or roles. (Be sure to use in text citations from this week’s readings and any supplemental readings)
For the above paragraphs be sure to provide specific examples and support your postings and responses with specific references to the Learning Resources.
Public Integrity, Fall 2009, vol. 11, no. 4, pp. 371–384. © 2009 ASPA. All rights reserved.
ISSN 1099-9922/2009 $9.50 + 0.00. DOI 10.2753/PIN1099-9922110405
“I Didn’t Do Anything Unethical, Illegal, or Immoral” A Case Study of Ethical Illiteracy in Local Governance DONALD C. MENZEL
This case study explores the conditions and circumstances in which public offi cials in a professionally managed American county became ensnared in an ethics thicket. The thicket was woven of ethical illiteracy and blind spots among high-level of- fi cials. The central questions are: Why did the county’s highly educated, politically smart, experienced offi cials fail to recognize the rocky ethical road they were on? Why was there a collective ethical blind spot? What lessons can be drawn that could enable local government offi cials to recognize and avoid an ethical quagmire that damages public trust and confi dence?
Stories and cases of unethical behavior in governance make daily headlines in newspapers and the electronic media across America. Indeed, it is fair to say that ethical governance worldwide is often challenged by elected and appointed public offi cials who succumb to the power, privilege, and opportunity of their offi ces to sacrifi ce the public interest on the altar of private interest. Have unethical behav- ior and wrongdoing in governance reached an alarming scale? Are we witnessing something more than “bad apples”? Could it be a matter of good apples fl oundering in bad barrels?
Dennis E. Thompson (1985) noted more than two decades ago that government is not in the business of producing a product called “ethics.” Yet in the absence of strong ethical governance, what government does produce, such as justice, air and water quality, transportation, national security, and parks and recreation, is not likely to be produced in an effi cient, equitable, affordable manner. As Thompson put it in a later essay, “from the truth that ethics is mainly instrumental, it does not
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follow, as many critics seem to think, that ethics is always less important than other issues” (1992, 255). The case recounted here underscores Thompson’s observation about the importance of ethics in governance and illustrates how easy it is to get into an ethical thicket and how very diffi cult it is to get out. The case also points to the fi ne line between legal and ethical behavior that so often provides offi cials with a rationale for their behavior, typically voiced as “I didn’t do anything unethical, illegal, or immoral.”
The Case of Pinellas County
Pinellas county in Florida is a peninsula bordered by the Gulf of Mexico on the west and by Tampa Bay on the east. It is a densely populated urban county with nearly 1 million residents. There are twenty-four separate incorporated municipali- ties, including the city of St. Petersburg with 249,000 residents and Clearwater, the county seat, with approximately 110,000 residents.
Pinellas county is one of eighteen chartered counties among the state’s sixty- seven counties. As a charter county, it has a great deal of discretion to govern itself and, within limits set by the state, can exercise independent taxing authority. The county is governed by a seven-member elected policy-making county commission; four of the incumbents are elected by single-member districts, and three are elected at-large. County governance is shared with fi ve independently elected constitutional offi cers—sheriff, property appraiser, tax collector, supervisor of elections, and clerk of the courts. The commission is responsible for appointing a professional admin- istrator who has day-to-day responsibility for managing the workforce under his jurisdiction (2,700 employees). Another 4,000 employees work for the constitutional offi cers, with most (2,800) employed by the sheriff.
The county has enjoyed a history of political stability and governmental profes- sionalism. Indeed, no county commissioner has failed to be reelected since 1992, and the county administrator has been in offi ce for fi ve years, replacing one who served twenty-two years (Kruger 2007b). Employees are treated well and enjoy long careers. Yet the county has been engulfed in controversy and perceptions of scandal over an insider land deal involving the property appraiser, the county administrator, the county attorney, and the board of county commissioners.
Actors and Actions in the Scandal
The property appraiser was elected nearly twenty years ago and intended to seek reelection in 2008. He was reelected without opposition in 1996, 2000, and 2004 and enjoys a reputation as a fair, competent offi cial. He is described by friends as “a man of high integrity.” Thirteen years ago he purchased a beautiful homesite for $15,000, and he describes the 1.5-acre parcel in the county as an urban oasis. He tells friends that the site is what the Spaniards must have seen when they fi rst came to Florida.
As the years pass, however, the parcel sits vacant, and he reconsiders his plan to build his dream house. He decides to put the parcel on the market. And, since his daughter is a new real estate agent, he lets her handle the listing—$400,000. The property is appraised by his own offi ce with a “just market value” of $59,400. Nine months pass, and no buyer is in sight. He also has personal problems. His eleven-year
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marriage ends, and the $1.2 million house he shared with his former wife belongs to her. Consequently, he decides to purchase a $497,000 house and use the money from the sale of the land parcel as a down payment.
But where can he fi nd a buyer for the vacant lot? In an informal conversation with his friend, the county attorney, she asks: “Would you consider selling the property to the county?” (interview with Property Appraiser Jim Smith, September 20, 2007). As it turns out, the county damaged the property severely, according to the appraiser, while engaged in fl ood repairs following the 2004 hurricanes. Moreover, county work crews accessed the property without the appraiser’s knowledge or consent. Surely the county commission would be disposed to undo a wrong suffered by the appraiser. And the county can legitimately claim that acquiring the property would be useful to mitigate future fl ooding.
The appraiser decides to meet with the admin- istrator to let him know just how unhappy he is about the damage the county did to his property. He also places calls to the chair of the county commission and the county attorney. And, while he does not want to fi le a lawsuit against the county, the attorney he hires sends a letter to the administrator suggesting that the county buy the “destroyed” property rather than face a lawsuit over the dam- age. “The letter,” according to the appraiser, “was sent without my authorization or knowledge” (interview with Property Appraiser Jim Smith, September 20, 2007). It states: “While my client is understandably upset about the ruination of his property, he is not vindictive and wishes to resolve this matter in a fair and expeditious manner . . . this letter will serve as a request that the county purchase the subject property so that he can have adequate funds to seek an alternative piece of property with a pastoral setting like the one his subject property previously enjoyed” (Helinger 2007).
The county administrator was appointed fi ve years ago and enjoys a very positive relationship with the county commission. He brings to the job more than twenty-fi ve years’ experience as a veteran, high-ranking offi cial in another urban county. He has a reputation for high-quality service improvement and innovative approaches to management. As the chair of the commission puts it, “Steve is fi nancially savvy. He can fi nd a quarter in a $2 billion dollar budget” (interview with City Council Chairman Ronnie Duncan, October 11, 2007).
The administrator is very much aware of the appraiser’s desire to have the county purchase the homesite and his very strong feelings about the damage the county did to it. In fact, when a high-level subordinate visited the site, he encountered the appraiser, who “was unbelievably mad—screaming, yelling, cussing.” The property appraiser claims that the meeting was not confrontational (interview with Property Appraiser Jim Smith, September 20, 2007). The administrator is shocked at how upset the appraiser is and promises to look into the damage. He cautions county staff to be sensitive, knowing any sign of special treatment given the appraiser would raise eyebrows (Van Sant 2007).
He delegates the matter to an assistant who is in his fi rst week on the job. The assistant administrator instructs staff to determine whether purchasing the property would be a good acquisition for needed fl ood control in the area. Staff returns with a positive response. The assistant instructs staff to proceed with the purchase ac- cording to county policy, which requires an outside appraisal.
The case recounted here . . . illustrates how easy it is to get into an ethical thicket and how very diffi cult it is to get out.
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The outside appraiser places a $250,000 price tag on the property but warns that the appraisal does not refl ect any water issues (especially fl ooding, which could devalue the estimate) and recommends that an outside expert be consulted. The ad- ministrator requests an assessment from a staff professional with expertise but does not seek the opinion of an outside expert (interview with former county administrator Steve Spratt, December 14, 2007). He then instructs the assistant administrator to make an offer of $200,000 for the property. The appraiser counters with $225,000, which the administrator accepts subject to approval by a vote of the commission. Why the administrator does not exercise due diligence in securing an outside expert opinion is a matter of speculation. News accounts suggest that the administrator fast- tracked the sale in order to enable the appraiser to meet the closing date set for him to purchase his new home. (Fast-tracking became an issue as well, with the media contending that the property appraiser was receiving favorable treatment because of who he was.) The administrator denies that he had knowledge of the appraiser’s intent to close on his new home but admits that he accelerated the transaction at the recommendation of the county attorney in order to avoid potential litigation (inter- view with former county administrator Steve Spratt, December 14, 2007).
It is standard protocol for the administrator to discuss agenda items with each member of the commission prior to the regularly scheduled board meetings. He informs each commissioner that (a) the property in question is the appraiser’s, (b) county staff had entered the property illegally and had damaged it, and (c) the purchase price was below the appraised value (interview with former county administrator Steve Spratt, December 14, 2007). A few days later the commission holds its weekly meeting and votes unanimously, with no public discussion, to ap- prove the purchase.
The county attorney went to work for Pinellas County more than twenty-fi ve years ago and has been the county attorney for twenty years. She enjoys the full trust and confi dence of her elected bosses. A former commissioner describes her as “a woman of high integrity and ethics and . . . always on the side of caution” (Kruger 2007b).
The appraiser decides to ask her to help him, and, as a long-time friend and col- league, “she offers to be a go-between him and the county” (interview with Property Appraiser Jim Smith, September 20, 2007). She understands that dual representation, representing the appraiser as a private citizen and the county in accordance with her duty as county attorney, is not illegal but could be an ethically slippery slope. Therefore, she decides to seek a confl ict-of-interest waiver, which requires the chair of the county commission to sign off. She sends the waiver to the county chair with a cover memo, but the memo does not detail the entire scope of her possible work for the appraiser. The chair signs the waiver (interview with City Council Chairman Ronnie Duncan, October 11, 2007). She does not inform the administrator or the commission that she is “representing” the appraiser in the sale of the property (she claims that she is not legally representing the property appraiser, but neither the grand jury nor the county commission fi nd this claim convincing).
The county commission is a collegial group that works as a team with the ad- ministrator and the county attorney. It is hardly a “courthouse gang,” yet the local media charges that the commission is a “courthouse gang” and has engaged in a “conspiracy of silence” (St. Petersburg Times 2007a). One editorial claims that that the commission is embarrassingly complacent and deferential and should fi re the
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PUBLIC INTEGRITY FALL 2009 • 375
county attorney who led them astray (St. Petersburg Times 2007c). Letters to the editor and blog postings are consistently critical of the commission. One writer as- serts that “this is only the tip of the iceberg in county corruption.” Another asserts that this “sort of back-door deal causes residents to distrust the commission . . . a wink and a nod won’t do” (St. Petersburg Times 2007b).
The public then learns that the county used money from a recent voter-supported tax referendum called Penny-for-Pinellas (March 13, 2007) to purchase the vacant lot owned by the appraiser. The Penny-for-Pinellas is a 1 percent local-option gov- ernment sales tax that earmarks funds for capital improvement projects such as road construction, fl ood control, park improvements, preservation of endangered lands, and public safety. With this announcement, the public uproar about the purchase of the appraiser’s property becomes even louder. The newspaper calls for the appraiser to resign and demands that the commission fi re the county attorney. The appraiser proclaims his innocence and asks the state attorney to convene a grand jury to in- vestigate the matter. The state attorney rejects the appraiser’s request, but changes his mind as more details about the scandal surface in the media.
The grand jury subpoenas more than three dozen witnesses and reviews numerous charts and references provided by both public and private entities. The key fi ndings of the presentment are shown in Exhibit 1. The fi rst fi nding, that none of the offi cials “maliciously abused” their positions, is the basis for the grand jury’s not returning an indictment against any of the principal actors. Still, the grand jury notes that there was a “clear public perception” that the appraiser was treated in a different, more favorable manner than an ordinary citizen would be treated, the administrator rushed the appraisal process, the county attorney’s behavior was perplexing, and the commissioners were either uninformed or derelict in their duty to conduct “any public discussion of such a sensitive purchase by a fellow elected offi cial.” In other words, everyone was responsible for the imbroglio, but no one had done anything illegal. A collective sigh of relief found expression in the claim made by the county attorney that “I didn’t do anything unethical, illegal, or immoral.”
Perhaps most damaging in the presentment is the concluding statement, which is highlighted in Exhibit 2. The grand jury notes that improper favoritism by a small number of offi cials placed a stain on the reputation of the “thousands of dedicated County workers . . . who work diligently on a daily basis to improve the services
Presentment’s Key Findings 1. There is no evidence that public offi cials “maliciously abused” their positions. 2. Several offi cials, including the county commissioners, helped foster the “clear public
perception” that the property appraiser received favorable treatment because of his status. 3. Several commissioners were completely unaware that the decision to purchase the
property appraiser’s property had been preceded by a threat to sue the county. 4. The county attorney’s actions were “perplexing and misleading.” 5. The normal objective appraisal process was rushed by the county administrator. 6. The county violated the appraiser’s property rights by entering the lot, but there was
no credible evidence that the work crews were responsible for the devastation claimed by the property appraiser.
7. County offi cials failed to conduct any public discussion of such a sensitive purchase by a fellow elected offi cial.
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provided to the citizenry.” And, “the breath of scandal surrounding this affair . . . will have a lasting impact on how the citizens of Pinellas County view its offi cials and government.” The jury admonishes county offi cials to take all steps necessary to restore confi dence in local governance.
Responses and Reactions
While relieved to learn that no indictments were forthcoming from the investiga- tion, the appraiser, administrator, and county attorney found it necessary to respond. (Exhibit 3 details part of the county attorney’s response; Exhibit 4 recounts the administrator’s reaction.) The county attorney denied that she had agreed to provide legal representation to the appraiser. Rather, she claimed, she had merely been trying to broker the dispute and resolve the matter in a manner that served the best interests of the county. She asserted that “at all times my conduct was open and ethical.” As noted, neither the grand jury nor the commission found her claim credible.
The administrator was quick to admit mea culpa and to “accept full responsibility for errors or missteps by me and members of my administration.” As a trained, expe- rienced professional, his public admission of mistakes was surely commendable.
“The presentment,” the property appraiser proclaimed, “was fair but incomplete. It was evident to me that the grand jury had been infl uenced by news media articles about the case and had made up their minds about my guilt” (interview with Prop- erty Appraiser Jim Smith, September 20, 2007). He repeatedly stated in the media, “Where did I do something wrong? I fail to see it.”
The news media had been responsible for uncovering the scandal and were unforgiving in asserting that there were failures all around. A St. Petersburg Times
Presentment Conclusion In closing, the Grand Jury notes that it is unfortunate that the cumulative omissions of a relatively small number of offi cials and employees may cause the claim of improper fa- voritism to stain the reputation of the thousands of dedicated County workers, both in the County Administration and in the Property Appraiser’s Offi ce, who work diligently on a daily basis to improve the services provided to the citizenry and as a result improve the quality of life in Pinellas County. Thus, the signifi cance of this incident should be placed within the perspective of over three decades of scandal free governance. Compared to those prior incidents, in which elected offi cials solicited or accepted bribes and went to prison for their conduct, the mishandling of this transaction might seem to be relatively minor. It, nonetheless, should serve as a reminder to all Offi cials and public employees that every citizen is entitled to prompt, fair and unbiased treatment and that maintaining both the integrity of government and the public’s perception of that integrity will require continuing vigilance.
All public offi cials should be keenly aware that in current times the public’s trust in government is particularly fragile. The breath of scandal surrounding this affair we believe will, unfortunately, have a lasting impact on how the citizens of Pinellas County view its offi cials and government. It is incumbent on all County offi cials to take all steps necessary to restore confi dence in our government.
(The full grand jury presentment is available at www.sptimes.com/2007/08/28/images/ tb_presentment.pdf, accessed September 8, 2007.)
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County Attorney’s Response It is now evident that I did not represent the Property Appraiser personally or individually or agree to represent him in this matter. My actions were taken in order to authorize the County Administrator to deal directly with the Property Appraiser himself on the issue of his property. I knew that the County Administrator’s communications were directly with the Property Appraiser and the Property Appraiser’s communications were directly with the Administrator and his staff. They met on the property, discussed various op- tions, concurred on the sale of the property, and negotiated the sale price and the closing contract without my input. My function was to advise the County on legal issues. Based upon the facts presented to my offi ce, I advised the County Administrator that the county staff clearly had no right to enter the property and that doing so unequivocally impinged on the Property Appraiser’s property rights. While the extent of the damage done to the property was not addressed by my offi ce, our research found no substantial arguable basis for these actions. This involvement was well within my charge as County Attorney, and was understood to be in my role as the county’s legal offi cer. Providing this legal advice should have been an aid to the county administration in determining how to deal with the Property Appraiser’s claim, as well as providing guidance for their actions in the future, it was not a directive to purchase the property, which the County Administrator was free to choose not to do so.
Although I did not provide legal representation to the Property Appraiser, apparently the Administrator and others perceived that I did. Although my actions were clear, there was apparently confusion and ambiguity surrounding them. I understood my role and intent, but apparently failed in my attempt to explain it clearly to the administrator. Al- though at all times my conduct was open and ethical, the perception remained that it was not. My only desire was to allow the parties to negotiate between themselves to save the substantial expense of dealing with a well-founded property rights violation.
The waiver of confl ict letter was consistent with my course of dealing over 20 years as County Attorney in these situations. The Chair has executed such waivers because he or she is the “client,” not the County Administrator. Pursuant to a protocol which has been in place since before my association with the County Attorneys [sic] offi ce 26 years ago, perceived, or possible confl ict situations are handled on a rather routine basis by present- ing a waiver letter to only the Chairman of the Commission. Although the letter implies that I could represent Property Appraiser, the purpose of the letter was to advise the Chair that I would not continue to represent Pinellas County, the only client I was representing, if the dispute continued into litigation. Had the matter moved to litigation, the value of the property would have been an obvious issue, and as proof of value, one or both sides of the dispute would refer to the value placed on the parcel by the Property Appraiser in his Offi cial Capacity, thus raising the issue of confl ict. The fact of the matter is that the County administration recommended the purchase of the property not because of the legal issues referred to me for opinion, but because the County apparently believed that the land was needed for future fl ood control activities. The end result is that the county administration acquired property it said it needed for $25,000 less than its appraised value and the county avoided the costs and expenses related to the inverse condemnation claim which the county probably could not successfully defend against based upon the county’s prior actions. This was clearly pointed out in the presentment returned by the grand jury in this matter.
(The entire response is available at www.sptimes.com//2007/08/30/images/churuti_let- ter.pdf, accessed September 8, 2007.)
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editorial, reprinted here as Exhibit 5, spared no one in the upper ranks of county government.
The County Commission Reacts
Recognizing the need to restore public trust and confi dence in government, the commission fi res the county attorney and discusses reprimanding the administrator. As one commissioner put it, “We’ve got some sour milk. You smell it and I smell it, and we’ve got to do something . . . someone has got to pay the price, and that’s painful” (Van Sant and Abel 2007b).
County Administrator’s Response I accept full responsibility for errors or missteps by me and members of my administra- tion in connection with the Property Appraiser’s property purchase. . . . Our public works crews should not have entered the Property Appraiser’s property without proper author- ity. This is what prompted the initial claim. They were trying to do the right thing (clear drainage blockage) with the right intentions (prevent neighborhood fl ooding), but did it the wrong way. . . .
I would welcome a group of independent experts in a form acceptable to the County Commission to review “best practices” in this subject matter, evaluate our land acquisi- tion procedures and recommend improvements where necessary. This transaction was initiated by a tort liability claim for property damages by the Property Appraiser but was not evaluated thoroughly as such. Instead of performing due diligence on the claim for damages, the Public Works Department recommended purchase of this property for creek drainage maintenance access. This alternative approach bypassed the review that this claim should have received. I will recommend implementation of a practice that requires a review and report of claim resolution alternatives in future circumstances like this.
This transaction was expedited in the interest of trying to protect the public from legal liability exposure. I personally should have slowed things down to ensure that greater care was taken with the analysis supporting the decision and that all questions were thor- oughly addressed. In the future, the administration should regard legal guidance as just that and exercise more independent judgment on matters such as this.
While I made it a point to alert every commissioner of the individual elected offi cial involved in this transaction (Property Appraiser) and the rationale for my recommenda- tions, they didn’t know as much about the matter as they should have. While there are a myriad of topics I discuss with commissioners regularly, making it diffi cult to cover all subjects thoroughly, I should have provided more information to the board on this topic. I pledge that this situation will not repeat itself.
The controversy surrounding this acquisition has been deeply troubling to all of us who have labored hard to cultivate a high-quality government. It has regrettably damaged the image of our organization in the public eye. The grand jury did a commendable job of sorting through the many important facts of this issue and arriving at fair conclusions and constructive recommendations. I wish to apologize to the public, Board of County Commissioners and our employees for any contribution I made to this controversy. I hold the public trust as my highest professional responsibility and would never intentionally do anything to call that obligation into question or bring harm to the Pinellas County government. Be assured I will do everything in my power to restore any diminished trust in the public’s county government.”
(The letter in its entirety is available at www.sptimes.com/2007/08/30/Opinion/Apol- ogy__and_a_pledge.shtml, accessed September 8, 2007.)
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“Pinellas Failures All Around” St. Petersburg Times editorial (excerpt) August 30, 2007 The grand jury report clearly chronicles the many ways County government utterly failed taxpayers in its questionable purchase of private property owned by the Property Ap- praiser. Now it is time to hold accountable those who violated the public’s trust as they quietly conspired to appease a political insider interested only in personal gain.
There is plenty of blame to go around in the 22-page report, from the Property Ap- praiser to the County Attorney to the County Administrator to the silent, complicit County Commission. Although the grand jury issued no criminal indictments, it was clearly disturbed by the Property Appraiser’s behavior and the county’s ill-considered rush to buy his private property—actions that have led to what the report calls the “breath of scandal” surrounding this affair.
As the Property Appraiser threatened to sue and applied pressure to force the county to buy his land, he had a powerful ally in the county attorney. She represents elected constitutional offi cers, the Property Appraiser included, in their offi cial capacities. But she represented the Property Appraiser in what the grand jury defi ned as his “private damage claim asserted in his individual capacity against the governmental entity she was contractually and ethically bound to defend.” That violates a state law, according to the presentment, and the county attorney’s explanation that she merely was clearing the way for others to negotiate rings hollow.
The County Attorney had the Property Appraiser and the County Commission Chair- man sign a waiver so she could “investigate” the Property Appraiser’s damage claim at his request, but the grand jury found she did little investigating. She did not even calculate the county’s legal exposure or whether only the inexpensive wetland portion of the Property Appraiser’s property was the only part allegedly damaged. The grand jury found that virtually every week, she asked the County Administrator for updates on the Property Appraiser’s deal, leaving him feeling pressured to complete the deal. It calls her behavior “perplexing and misle
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