Palm Beach County’s ethics commission is rarely going to please the people on whom it passes judgment. As a state senator’s cynical efforts to intimidate it show, holding local government leaders and lobbyists to account for ethics code violations is a sure way to make political enemies. Such is the nature of the panel’s important role.
But the Commission on Ethics does itself no favors when its members make remarks from the dais that can be used to call into question their professionalism. Such was the case this year in two hearings regarding a Wellington equestrian’s improper donation to the Wellington mayor’s legal defense fund.
The ethics commission had correctly moved to investigate Victoria McCullough’s $4,000 contribution to Mayor Bob Margolis. Since Ms. McCullough employs lobbyists, commissioners concluded that her donation was a violation of county ethics rules. But even though the case was resolved months ago, Ms. McCullough’s attorney is complaining about off-the-cuff remarks two ethics commissioners made during closed-door hearings in January and February.
When the commission was debating whether the money in question would be returned to Ms. McCullough, one commissioner – apparently Commissioner Robin Fiore – remarked that Ms. McCullough now “could go shopping if she wanted to.” In a separate hearing, Commissioner Daniel Galo raised questions about Ms. McCullough’s claim that her violation was inadvertent, criticizing the donation as part of a larger fight between “two different, very wealthy groups.” Ms. McCullough’s attorney accused him of more strident language, but recordings do not bear that out.
Ms. McCullough’s attorney has seized on the comments, claiming that they show animosity against his client based on her wealth. This claim is meritless, but the commissioners’ comments were unusual and immaterial enough to give him fodder.
When we asked Commissioner Fiore about the remark, she claimed not to remember saying it. She said, in any case, that the objection is simply “manufactured indignation.” Commissioner Galo admitted that some of his comments may have made him “appear to not be as impartial as people think I should be.”
Why does any of this matter? Because the ethics commission, a quasi-judicial body, is being harassed by one of Ms. McCullough’s allies, state Sen. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Wellington. He has ordered a state audit of the commission. Making off-the-cuff comments allows critics to start manufacturing indignation.
for The Post Editorial Board