If you are convicted of a felony in Florida, you lose more than your freedom for a few years (or more than a few years)– you lose a number of civil rights– like voting, serving on a jury, holding public office and possessing a firearm. And you lose those rights forever– although there is a clemency process through which convicted felons may seek restoration of their rights.
Key West Assistant City Manager Greg Veliz is quite familiar with these restrictions on convicted felons. He is one. In April 1991, Veliz and his partner in crime, Charles Ferrell Barwick, were indicted by a Federal Grand Jury. The indictment read in part, that, for at least three years, between January 1988 and April 1991, Veliz and Barwick “did knowingly, intentionally and unlawfully combine, conspire, confederate and have a tacit agreement to possess and distribute cocaine.” Reportedly, Veliz and Barwick were bringing in cocaine by the boatload. Literally. By the boatload. Subsequently, Veliz pled guilty and was sentenced to six years in the penitentiary, plus five years probation, plus a $50,000 fine. This was considered a lenient sentence because Veliz reportedly “cooperated” with the government. Presumably, that means informing on and testifying against others. Veliz served only about half of his sentence, however. He was released in 1994 and he returned to Key West.
A felony conviction is, for sure, a black mark on one’s resume. But most people believe that ex-cons, if they make an effort to become a part of society again, deserve a second chance. That is probably one of the factors that City Manager Jim Scholl considered when he promoted Veliz to Assistant City Manager last year. When I interviewed Scholl for a profile here in The Blue Paper several weeks ago, he told me that Veliz was the best man for the job. “But what about the employees you passed over for the job, employees who have managed to stay out of prison,” I asked. Scholl’s answer was surprising. Veliz was the only employee who applied for the job.
But there are more questions to be asked here. For example, during the 20 years Veliz has been out of prison, how much effort has he made to try to get his civil rights restored? Apparently, no effort at all. According to the Supervisor of Elections Office, Veliz is not registered to vote– presumably because that would be a violation of state law. There may also be a question about whether his appointment to Assistant City Manager is legal. Keep in mind that the Constitution of the State of Florida prohibits a convicted felon from “holding public office” unless his or her civil rights have been restored by the Office of Executive Clemency– which requires approval of the Governor and two cabinet members. In a 1997 advisory legal opinion then-Florida Attorney General Robert Butterworth said, in essence, that the constitutional prohibition concerning convicted felons holding public office does not discriminate between elected public office and other forms of public office. His opinion was in response to a question from a mayor who wanted to know if he could legally appoint a convicted felon (who did not have his civil rights restored) to the board of directors of a local housing authority. Butterworth’s opinion was “No,” such an appointment would be a violation of the State Constitution. Our current Attorney General, Pam Bondi, has recently re-published that opinion on line. There still may be legal questions about the definition of “public office,” but concerning our local situation, an obvious question is whether an appointment of a convicted felon to the position of Assistant City Manager carries more import than the appointment of a convicted felon to the board of a housing authority. Because of these questions, City Attorney Shawn Smith should have been asked– before Veliz was appointed to the position of Assistant City Manager– to request an advisory opinion from Attorney General Bondi concerning the specific situation here. If such an opinion was requested, perhaps City Attorney Smith could provide us with a copy of Bondi’s response.
If you are a longtime reader of Key West The Newspaper, you may recall our series of stories about how Greg Veliz became a City employee in the first place. Can you spell “job fix”? Back in 2006, newly-elected City Commissioner Danny Kolhage asked then-City Manager Julio Avael to find a job for Veliz. Avael, whose job was more than shaky at that time, knew that this was more than just a polite request. Kolhage and Veliz were longtime cronies and Veliz had reportedly been very active in Kolhage’s election campaign. The only job available was as a sewer line inspector, but Veliz took it and reported for work. But he couldn’t keep his mouth shut. Almost immediately, he started telling fellow employees that he was not going to be there very long– that his buddy Danny was going to “take care of him.” In the meantime, Avael had recommended to the City Commission that a position of Assistant Parks and Recreation Director be created. Such a job was created and two employees applied– Jay Gewin and Greg Veliz. Jay had been on the City payroll for a number of years, had excellent personnel evaluations– and had, somehow, managed to stay out of prison. Veliz had been a City employee for six months in an entry level job. So guess which employee Avael selected for the new position. You guessed it! From inspector of sewer line connections to assistant department head in only six months! Is this a great country or what?!
But, hey, there may be some good news here. If Veliz is able to stay in his Assistant City Manager job– with a salary of $120,000– he can start making payments on the $50,000 fine he avoided when he got out of prison in 1994 by pleading poverty. City Manager Scholl says that Veliz has paid his debt to society. Not quite. There’s still $50,000 outstanding.