A Palm Beach County ethics commissioner alleged Thursday that the voter-backed watchdog group is being targeted by state Sen. Joseph Abruzzo because it did not hire his legislative aide and former boss to serve as its executive director.
Abruzzo, D-Wellington, said this week that he asked the Senate president’s office to order an audit of the county’s ethics commission.
Abruzzo on Thursday said that the request had nothing to do with his aide’s application for the job. He said he asked for the audit before his aide, West Palm Beach attorney Philip Massa, was told whether he had been chosen for the executive director position.
“That is one of the most irresponsible comments I have ever heard,” Abruzzo said.
The legislature’s auditing arm, known as OPPAGA, notified the county ethics officials March 26 that it had been asked to audit the commission’s budget, operating procedures and methods. The notice came five days after the commission picked Steven Cullen to be its executive director. Massa and four other finalists were interviewed that day.
Massa works as a legislative aide in Abruzzo’s Wellington office and once employed the sitting lawmaker at a state agency. Abruzzo now works as a lobbyist at the Weiss, Handler and Cornwell law firm in Boca Raton.
Ethics Commissioner Ronald Harbison, an accountant on the board since it formed in 2010, said it was “easy to connect the dots.”
“We have an employee of Sen. Abruzzo’s who applied for the executive director job and says that we need to change our policies and procedures, and he gets no support,” Harbison said. “Circumstantial as it may be, I am just going to call it as I see it.”
Harbison said he welcomed the review and would embrace recommendations that improve the office.
“But that is not what this is about,” Harbison said. “And you all know it.”
Abruzzo said Thursday that he has some “concerns” about the ethics commission, but he declined to discuss them in detail.
“I am waiting until the audit is complete,” Abruzzo said.
Abruzzo said he is considering introducing a bill that would “ensure compliance and proper training for ethics boards.” The lawmaker said he plans to meet with the ethics commission after the state’s legislative session ends to discuss the legislation.
“I will be requesting an appearance before the ethics commission at the conclusion of the legislative session to discuss with them possibly policies, procedures and potential legislation to ensure proper compliance and training is in place for our ethics board,” Abruzzo said.
In its three-year history, the ethics board has been criticized for overreaching on minor matters. On Thursday, board members pointed out that they had issued 250 advisory opinions.
Compared to other county departments, the ethics commission is small. The office employs five staffers with a budget of less than $500,000. Its five-member commission is made up of volunteers, each selected by a different community-based group, such as the police chief’s association.
“Considering just how frugal this staff has been and this commission has been, it makes me scratch my head as to why we are going to spend OPPAGA money on this,” said Ethics Commission Chairman Manuel Farach. “If we pinched the pennies any farther on this commission I think Abe Lincoln would be screaming.”
During his interview, Massa told ethics commissioners that the commission should review its policies and procedures to make them more in-line with the state’s Administrative Procedures Act. He also said the commission should address complaints more quickly and should streamline the county’s ethics code.
Reached Thursday, Massa said Harbison’s allegation was “ridiculous.”
“I’m shocked that a person in such an important public position would make such a reckless and libelous comment,” Massa said. “I found out about OPPAGA when I read it in the newspaper. I’ve never discussed this with the senator.”
Massa said his application for the job was independent of his relationship with Abruzzo. He applied for the executive director position in January. He began working as Abruzzo’s legislative assistant on Feb. 11, he said.
Abruzzo and Massa have known each other for years.
In 2009, Massa sought an opinion from the state ethics commission on whether he could hire the sitting lawmaker for public relations at a little-known state agency Massa then headed, the 4th District Court of Appeal’s Office of Regional Conflict and Civil Counsel. The agency was created to take over cases when public defenders declare conflicts of interest.
It was an unusual job. Only one other Regional Counsel office had someone handling public relations. And Abruzzo could earn up to $63,000 a year, making him one of the highest paid workers in the office.
However, Abruzzo said at the time he was also handling law office administration, and that his salary was docked when he was away on legislative matters. As a result, in 2010, the lawmaker said he expected to have his salary trimmed by more than $20,000.
He reported earning $84,850 from the state in 2010, including his $29,000 legislative salary.
The state ethics commission said Abruzzo could take the job without running afoul of state law.
That wasn’t the only issue facing Massa. Dozens of lawyers left what they described as a dysfunctional office. Massa drew lawyers’ ire for returning $1 million to the state while telling staffers to sharply cut trial costs.
Privately, several criticized Abruzzo’s hiring. In a letter forwarded in 2010 to Gov. Charlie Crist by outgoing state Rep. Carl Domino, R-Jupiter, an unidentified worker in the office expressed concern that “a sitting state legislator is being paid a salary to perform public affairs duties.”
In a separate unsigned letter by employees sent directly to Crist’s office, workers wrote that Abruzzo “is hardly here nor has any meaningful role to serve at this agency.”
In late 2011, Gov. Rick Scott appointed a new head for the Regional Counsel’s office.