Months ago, a Wellington heiress took offense at a public official’s tone, and now state Sen. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Wellington, is bringing the powers of state government to bear on a tiny Palm Beach County agency. The lengths to which a politician will go to appease a patron.
In a fit of political vengeance, Sen. Abruzzo on Monday convinced his colleagues on a legislative committee to ask the county’s Commission on Ethics to close up shop. This after earlier siccing state auditors on the commission.
But the senator is not content with mere gestures. Three days later, he announced plans to file a bill imposing new regulations on ethics commissions around the state.
This sustained effort at intimidation is petty, frivolous and detached from all sense of proportion. One senator peeved over a minor perceived affront has launched the Legislature’s version of shock and awe on one of the key achievements of the county’s ethics-reform efforts. There’s nothing like abuse of power to underscore its alarming extent.
This excess was never more evident than at the ethics commission’s Thursday meeting, when Sen. Abruzzo phoned in to announce his plan. Glum-faced commissioners listened as the senator’s voice boomed, villain-like, from the public-address speaker.
Why is this happening? Last year, Victoria McCullough, a Wellington equestrian who is a close friend, political supporter and former employer of Sen. Abruzzo, was cited by the ethics commission for making a political donation to Wellington Mayor Bob Margolis. Since she employs lobbyists, that appeared to violate the ethics code.
Commissioners could have fined her. But after a hearing, they let her off with a “letter of instruction.” Still, she was displeased. Her attorney chided commissioners for making a pair of comments she interpreted as denigrating her because of her wealth. With her returned donation, one commissioner said, Ms. McCullough “could go shopping.”
However tactless, it wasn’t outrageous or interesting. But it was enough to rile Sen. Abruzzo, whose legislative aide was later turned down for a job as the commission’s executive director.
Now Sen. Abruzzo claims to care about improving the ethics commission’s practices, hiding behind the fig leaf of an audit that he convinced the Legislature’s investigative arm to produce. But his concerns are vastly overstated.
The senator claims to be worried about “due process,” pointing out that state auditors recommended greater separation between the commission’s dual roles as prosecutor and judge. This is a valid critique. But in the commission’s three-plus years of existence, this potential conflict has never come up. Not one of the 65 cases in which probable cause has been found has gone to a final hearing, at which commissioners sit as judges.
In other words, it’s a hypothetical problem. The supposed victims that so seem to worry Sen. Abruzzo are figments. What is real and plain to see is that the senator is bent on revenge, not reform.
for The Post Editorial Board