When Ron Harbison, a member of the Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics, blasted state Sen. Joe Abruzzo last month for leading a political attack on the independent commission, Harbison got his timing wrong.
Harbison thought Abruzzo’s request for a state audit of the commission came five days after the commission rejected Abruzzo’s former boss for a top ethics job. But Abruzzo had made his request a month earlier.
Harbison may have gotten the timing wrong. But Abruzzo’s request came immediately after the board completed an investigation of one of his closest friends. Additionally, the fate of Abruzzo’s former boss and current legislative aide, Phillip Massa, appears to have influenced the decision to proceed with the audit, documents obtained by The Palm Beach Post show.
Abruzzo sought the state audit just days after the commission had scrutinized Wellington petroleum heiress Victoria McCullough, who Abruzzo likens to a family member. In a closed session in January that McCullough attended, her attorney took offense at a statement from an ethics commissioner and lashed out at what he called an attack on McCullough’s integrity.
Abruzzo, D-Wellington, said he considered the scrutiny of McCullough among his concerns going back 18 months, when he requested the probe on Feb. 13.
“To say that Victoria contacted me and that was the premise, I would definitely say that is not accurate,” Abruzzo said. “This definitely has been on my radar for quite some time.”
Still, he cited the commission’s “inappropriate comments and statements.”
“I want the professional reviewers to take a look at how the commission runs,” he said. “The commissioner who made inappropriate remarks (Harbison) goes right into the heart of why I want them to review and above all, have the proper training to pass judgment on those who come before them.”
Reform measures under fire
Bringing in a state agency to investigate an ethics commission established to be free of political interference smacks of blowback against county efforts to institutionalize clean government, ethics watchdogs say.
“A probe like this could be viewed as intimidation,” said Dan Krassner, executive director of the recently formed government watchdog group Integrity Florida. “Why did the senator single out one local ethics agency and not do all of them in the state?”
The move appears to be the second in ongoing attacks on anti-corruption measures the county took in the wake of a 2009 grand jury report and the imprisonment of three commissioners on corruption charges. The reforms called for the creation of an ethics commission and an independent inspector general.
But they haven’t played out entirely as envisioned. The inspector general’s office has been dogged by a lawsuit filed by 14 cities that has cut its budget even as voters demanded that it keep watch over all 38 cities in the county.
The ethics commission plays a pivotal role in the hiring and firing of the inspector general. Its five members, each appointed by a different community-based organization, also review ethics complaints filed against elected officials and have the power to initiate investigations, a power not given to the state’s ethics commission.
Since Abruzzo’s request, an ethics rules committee blocked an effort to expand the ethics commission to seven members and enact term limits, moves that some viewed as watering down its power.
To assure that elected officials can’t be bought, ethics commissioners have been accused of harping on minutiae. In hundreds of findings and opinions, officials have been told to stop accepting tickets to charity banquets and given guidance on separating personal business from government work.
‘My favorite politician in the entire world’
Victoria McCullough, a Wellington equestrian and chairman of privately held Chesapeake Petroleum — founded by her father, Rexford Davis — came under ethics scrutiny for writing a $4,000 check in 2012 to Wellington Mayor Bob Margolis’ legal defense fund, a gift that may have violated the ethics code.
Her relationship with Abruzzo goes back years, before Abruzzo’s first successful run for state House in 2008.
Al Bennett, who worked on an early Abruzzo campaign, knew McCullough needed someone to help her with equine protection issues in Washington. Abruzzo, who comes from a wealthy Chicago family, had powerful friends in Congress, Bennett said, and he helped bring the two together.
McCullough has said she has since hired Abruzzo to lobby for her federal anti-horse slaughter crusade.
Abruzzo, who works as a government relations and public policy consultant with the politically connected Weiss Handler & Cornwell law firm in Boca Raton, has secured meetings for her with congressmen, top D.C. lobbyists and the U.S. secretary of agriculture, McCullough has boasted.
Abruzzo maintains that he doesn’t lobby local governments. But the Weiss Handler firm does. It also lobbies on their behalf.
Abruzzo and McCullough “criss-crossed the state,” she said, to get the Florida Legislature to pass a horse protection law in 2010. The act, sponsored in the House by Abruzzo, is partially named for McCullough.
Abruzzo took McCullough’s side in an August 2011 appearance before a Wellington equestrian committee. McCullough had hired a lobbyist to fight construction of a road that she argued would pass too close to her $6.8 million home.
And just last month, Abruzzo joined McCullough at a conference in Chatham, N.Y., to talk about ending horse slaughter — the killing of horses for human consumption.
During the American Equine Summit, McCullough described Abruzzo as “my favorite politician in the entire world.”
She introduced him as “one of the most important people for the future of our country.” Political watchers say Abruzzo has his eyes on a congressional run.
McCullough is a modest financial supporter of Abruzzo, giving $1,500 in 2008 and 2010. She also gave $42,500 in those same years to the Democratic Party and a related fund-raising group.
“She’s not a good friend; she’s a great friend, and I consider her family,” Abruzzo said.
Scrutiny of heiress seen as attack
The county ethics commission initiated an investigation into Margolis because of two gifts he disclosed on his gift reporting form, including the $4,000 check from McCullough. The commission determined that she qualified under the ethics law as a lobbyist because she employed lobbyists. Lobbyists are banned from giving elected officials more than $100.
The ethics board found on Feb. 7 probable cause that she had violated the ethics code but dismissed the charge and issued a “letter of instruction” to assure that it never happened again.
When Abruzzo first sought an audit of the ethics commission in February, a new complaint had been filed against Margolis, also citing McCullough’s check. In a May ruling, the commission found no reason to change its finding related to McCullough.
But before Abruzzo sought the audit, McCullough chafed under the commission’s scrutiny.
During a Jan. 10 closed session, ethics commissioner Dan Galo, a former prosecutor, suggested McCullough’s support of Margolis made her a player in the dispute dominating Wellington politics between Mark Bellissimo, who is pushing to grow the equestrian industry, and the Jacobs family, which opposes Bellissimo’s proposals.
“I look at this transaction as part of a larger transaction,” Galo said. “I look at it as part of a very large financial interest by two different very wealthy groups.”
Abruzzo’s request came “hard on the heels” of several complaints involving the Wellington election, said ethics commissioner Robin Fiore, director of ethics initiatives at the University of Miami School of Medicine.
The state’s review seems to be based more on “strategy” than a “substantive” problem, she said.
“This is purely speculation. We had a number of complaints from Wellington. People are using the ethics commission system to beat up on their opponents before, during and after the election. Unfortunately that will continue. I expect there will be more.”
McCullough opposes Bellissimo’s plans that involve the road near her home. She worked with Lou Jacobs to form the Wellington Preservation Coalition and serves on its board.
Abruzzo’s ties to the Jacobs family are evident in his listing as a fundraiser on the website of Taxpayers for Integrity in Government, which the Jacobs family used to funnel $580,000 into last year’s divisive Wellington Village Council election. Jacobs’ candidates won and voted against several Bellissimo initiatives, including the $80 million Equestrian Village, which called for showgrounds, stores and a hotel.
McCullough attended the 50-minute closed hearing with her attorney, Roma Theus. At the end, an outraged Theus addressed Galo’s comments.
“Ms. McCullough is not linked or associated with any particular political group,” he said. “There’s no conspiracy here. … Trying to link or associate her with other people is not fair or appropriate. There’s no evidence of it.”
Even weeks later, Theus sounded angry as he recalled the session. Had his client been treated improperly?
“There’s no question of it,” he said. “It was an attack on Ms. McCullough.”
How to train for ‘common sense’?
In his remarks to The Post, Abruzzo suggested the ethics commission may be better served if it was made up of retired judges. “They need to be free from influence and have training on how to examine the case,” Abruzzo said.
Ethics Commission Chairman Manuel Farach, an attorney, questioned that approach. “How do you train for common sense?” he asked. “If there is training on how to be a better decision-maker, I want to know about that.”
Board members can’t be faulted for a lack of deference, Fiore said.
“Our role is to ask questions, give advice and make the best judgments we can. I don’t see that any of the commissioners have behaved unprofessionally. We’re not very aggressive. Our current chair is extremely courteous. And certainly Judge (Ed) Rodgers (the commission’s first chairman) is the soul of gentility.”
She pointed out that Massa — the finalist for the top ethics job, former boss of Abruzzo at the local Office of Regional Conflict and Civil Counsel and now Abruzzo’s legislative aide — questioned the commission’s procedures during his job interview.
“He was pretty critical,” Fiore said.
Massa felt he “could whip us into shape,” she said. “Seems like he and Abruzzo were working on it together.”
Investigation held up until ethics chief picked
Abruzzo reached out to start the investigation on Feb. 13 with a phone call to the Legislature’s auditing arm known as OPPAGA. He left a phone message calling OPPAGA’s chief Phil Twogood to his office to discuss the inquiry.
But emails between the Senate president’s office, which signed off on starting the investigation, and OPPAGA indicate the Massa’s job hunt may have played a role in the timing of the announcement of the probe.
After authorizing the investigation in late February, Senate President Don Gaetz’s office learned on March 15 that OPPAGA was ready to go.
That day, the Senate president’s general counsel, George Levesque, asked Twogood to hold off on starting the review, emails between the two show.
On March 21, hours after the ethics commission selected Jupiter attorney Steven Cullen from six finalists — meaning Massa didn’t get the job — Levesque sent a 6:49 p.m. email to Twogood. “You’re OK to proceed with PBC,” he wrote.
Levesque told The Post he held up the review to remind the Senate president of it and to let House leaders know. “I don’t remember who everybody was. I wanted to talk to the president again,” Levesque said. “That was probably the main reason: to make sure everybody was aware of it.”
OPPAGA announced its probe five days later, leading Harbison to conclude that Massa’s rejection prompted the probe.
In a sharply worded April 8 letter, Abruzzo told the ethics commission that he found Harbison’s comments “irresponsible.”
“It has never been more apparent to me that an audit is necessary to obtain information and have a thorough review for how the board conducts itself,” Abruzzo wrote, seeking a meeting with the board.
His letter brought an invitation from ethics commission Chairman Farach to appear in June.
“I understand from your letter that you are concerned how the commission conducts itself, that it be properly trained, be free from influence and that it not hold prejudices. I respectfully request that you share with us any specific instance where you believe the commission failed so we can immediately address your concerns.”
Earlier this month, as the ethics board conducted a five-hour meeting mostly behind closed doors, three OPPAGA investigators sat in the audience.
- Investigates complaints about the ethics of government workers and elected officials
- Writes advisory opinions
- Oversees ethics training
- With the state attorney and public defender, selects the inspector general and decides whether to keep the inspector general after a four-year term
- Fully financed by the county
- Detects and prevents fraud, waste, mismanagement and misconduct by government workers and elected officials
- Publishes audits and investigations
- Conducts training to identify “red flags” for workers to avoid
- Budget curtailed by lawsuit filed by 14 cities
Ethics Commission members
Manuel Farach, chairman, a lawyer with Richman Greer in West Palm Beach, appointed by three county Bar associations.
Robin Fiore, director of special ethics initiatives at the University of Miami School of Medicine; appointed by the president of Florida Atlantic University.
Ron Harbison, accountant and founder of Valuation Analysts, a business valuation and financial forensics firm; appointed by an accounting industry group.
Dan Galo, attorney with Groelle & Salmon in Wellington and a former assistant state attorney; appointed by county police chiefs association.
Patricia Archer, a Delray Beach city commissioner from 1999 to 2006; appointed by the Palm Beach County League of Cities.
Steven Cullen, Jupiter attorney and former compensation court administrative law judge; selected to succeed Alan Johnson on March 21.