Oct 272017
 

Taxpayers to Pay Up to $50k to Help Them Fill Out Simple Form

by Rick Boettger…….

News break—I just received a copy of Mark Herron’s contract from an attorney in County Attorney Bob Schillinger’s office.  Herron will get $300/hour plus expenses to vet not only the Commissioners’ but their “employees,” whoever that includes, but “. . .do not exceed $49,999.99.”  They say this is authorized by Section 2-58(b)(3) of the county code.  I, and if necessary my Harvard lawyer, will take a close look at this section and report later.

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How on earth could they get worse, since what I have already reported is so appalling?  To recap, last week I gave you the total amount of misreported financial data for the four commissioners’ 16 ethical violations caught this year (Heather Carruthers, Danny Kolhage, David Rice, and Silvia Murphy—George Neugent got his three violations last year), an astounding $15.3 million, and total number of errors of form, over 700.  I asked you to guess who had which errors.  Here are the answers:

Leading the pack on financial misreporting was Heather Carruthers, with total errors of $7,427,421 over the four years.  Second is David Rice at $4,561,558.  In third place is Danny Kolhage at $2,254,648.  And bringing up the rear is Sylvia Murphy, with “only” $1,109,000 in reporting errors.  These are all admitted by their own hand, meaning, for example, a net worth was off by half a million, a portfolio of $700k was first reported at $550k, or a boat worth $100k was not reported at all.

Errors of form were mainly not reporting addresses, or reporting only a portfolio like “Ameriprise Account” instead of the 15 stocks within the fund.  In this contest for incorrect reporting, Danny takes first dishonors with 335, then David with 228, third Heather with 138, and Sylvia again least-bad in show with only 10.

As promised, I will in ensuing weeks discuss each commissioner’s violations in detail, one at a time.  This week, a remarkable press release put out by the county shows how the guilty commissioners simply don’t get it when it comes to ethics, but instead how they are permanently compounding the problem in their response to it.

On October 20, the day the Commission on Ethics met in Tallahassee to impose the fines, the county’s PIO put out a press release which you can link to HERE.  That is the only way you are likely to find it, as it is NOT on the county’s website as old news, unlike every other press release they have issued. (One Key West publication published it verbatim as its only coverage of the fines, but it seems to have been otherwise ignored—please correct me, anyone, if you’ve seen it somewhere up the Keys.) In two sentences it describes the violations as simply “reporting errors” and the range of amounts of the fines.  It then says they were all “corrected prior to [accepting the fines].”

Further minimizing the gravity of the offenses, the press release does not offer a word of explanation or remorse from any of the guilty commissioners.  Instead, it quotes county attorney Bob Schillinger at length, basically saying, we’ve fixed the problem, nothing to see here anymore, everybody move along.

But the way Schillinger says they’ve “address[ed] this issue” only makes it worse for us, the taxpayers. They have “retained Mark Herron . . . to review the forms filed” from now on. Herron is the top ethics lawyer in the state, defending charged officials.  I am sure you can not pay more than he charges to do this simple task of filling out the forms.

Worse, Schillinger proudly says they “invited Virlindia Doss, Executive Director of the Commission on Ethics, to conduct training. “ Both Herron and Doss covered what Schillinger calls the “nuanced instructions” for the Form 6.

“Nuanced” means “a subtle distinction in expression.” But there was nothing “subtle” about either the instructions for the form 6 or the giant errors the commissioners made while not following them.  You be the judge: Simple or Nuanced?:

  • “List the name of each source of income . . ., the address of that source, and the amount . . .”
  • For financial portfolios, the instructions emphasize, “Do not list simply ‘stocks and bonds’ or ‘bank accounts,’  For example, list ‘Stock  (Williams Construction Co.)’  ‘Bonds (Southern Water and Gas)’ . . “
  • “’Income’ means the same as ‘gross income’ for federal income tax purposes, even if the income is not actually taxable . . . Examples of income include . . .gains from property dealings, . . . rents. . .
  • If more than $1,000 was gained from the sale of a property, then you should list as a source of income the name of the purchaser, the purchaser’s address, and the amount of gain from the sale.”

All of the commissioners’ errors were of the above four types, except those even simpler, like not getting the form notarized, or not reporting an asset like a boat at all.  I see no “subtle distinction of expression” leading two of the commissioners to not reporting at all the sale of properties for millions of dollars in gains.

If filing the income from reporting your capital gain is too tough for you, you have the option of “filing a complete tax return” for the year.  Actually, if you are too embarrassed to, say, report you made no charitable donations, as George did the years he itemized, you could simply pay your tax preparer, say, $50 to take the information you have already reported to the IRS and put it on the form. They all MUST have paid preparers, as if they can’t handle the Form 6, they would stand no chance with the 1040. The preparers would consider the $50 to be easy money.

Instead, the county has proudly decided it is worth spending our tax money on the most expensive such lawyer in the state to handle this simple work, with the smokescreen that the above instructions are too “nuanced” for our commissioners to handle all by their lonesomes. I have submitted a Public Records Request to the county asking the enabling legislation for this expense, Herron’s contract, and the cost of getting Doss down here. Cammy Clark promptly responded (thanks, Cammy) saying Bob Schillinger would answer when he gets back from vacation (whenever that is–she did not say).

Other questions I want to ask all of the commissioners include the following:

  • How can we trust you to handle our half a billion dollars of money every year on complicated problems when you can’t even follow the directions for this simple form?
  • Will you apologize to Linda Gottwald and the Board of Directors for SUFA for your putting her out of business and relentlessly prosecuting them all for years on the basis of a spurious “audit” that showed she made fewer errors in seven years of financial reporting than any of you did in any single one of the 16 forms currently fined for violations?
  • Do any of you take issue with the estimate of over $1,000,000 in costs to us the taxpayers for your ruining SUFA and pursuing Linda and her Board?
  • Do any of you have any remorse for your slipshod lack of effort in filling out these important forms?

I’ll ask them all these questions by email, including a few questions about reporting details specific to each.  Please suggest others, if you wish, and I can include them.  I doubt they will answer. If they indeed do not, it is lucky we have the monthly meeting Nov. 17 down here, three blocks from my house, in case I have to show up to ask them in person.

“Nuanced”?  Give me a break.

 

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Rick Boettger

Rick Boettger had a Top Secret security clearance in the Army and studied nuclear chemistry at MIT and law at Yale before getting a PhD in business at Berkeley. He earned tenure as a business professor at TCU in Fort Worth before going to Moscow as a Fulbright Professor, writing a book on the economy, hosting a semi-national talk radio show, and retiring to Key West in 1996 at the age of 48. Since then he has worked part-time as a tax and financial advisor, and has been doing investigative journalism since he began at the Blue Paper in 2007​. He is very happily married to his superb copy-editor Cynthia Edwards, the former long-time PIO for the Key West Police Department.


  8 Responses to “County Commissioners’ Ethical Problems Get Worse”

  1. Wasting taxpayer money because of their own egregious acts was bad enough before (SUFA, the sewer debacle), but it’s especially difficult now when so many people have no place to stay or are dealing with their home damages. I have a hard time imagining how such incompetent people managed to hang on for so long – but this is Floriduh and corruption rules.

  2. This. Is. Criminal. It’s outrageous behavior. You, Rick, are a terrific watchdog. Thanks a million, or 15.3 million, for your meticulous investigation! Hard to believe this is not being reported effectively. I saw the mention in the Citizen and was astounded that it got such little ink. As you say, these are the people who decide where to spend county tax dollars! They are not honest. They can’t be trusted. They’ve been going on like this for years, until you shined the light on them. I say: “throw the bums out!” Surely, we can find a few honest people to run the county. I’m stunned. Stunned. Moreover, how could Tallahassee, or whomever is receiving these “nuanced” forms, not notice the discrepancies! Year over year? Is no one looking? That’s your next assignment. Find out why the State isn’t catching these oversights.

  3. Because of past experiences I’ve observed of the Ethics Commission whitewashing, at best, what sure looked to me like serious ethics violations, I’m more than a little surprised they did anything with your complaints against the county commissioners.

    For one example. They already had treated George Neugent getting free annual golf club memberships, because he was a county commissioner, like, hmmm, jaywalking. I viewed it as a series (annual) capital offenses, because I know that heaps of business deals are made on the golf course away from prying eyes and ears.

    After Dennis Ward was elected in 2008, he went before the county commission and told them they needed to pass an ethics law with teeth that applied to them. 4 of the commissioners looked insulted. Commissioner Kim Wigington agreed and proposed a new county ethics ordinance the other 4 liked about as much as they liked Ward’s invasion of their chamber. As I recall, the other 4 were George Neugent, Mario Di Gennaro, Heather Carruthers and Sylvia Murphy.

    By the time the other 4 got done nibbling and snipping, and then claiming what a great ordinance they had created, it looked like something you would love to have to live by if you were an unethical elected official. When it came to a vote before the 5 in the Marathon Government Center, during citizen comments I told Kim it was a joke ethics ordinance and not to sully herself by voting for it. She cast the lone vote against it.

    In the 2010 county commission race, Neugent got 4 times as many votes as I got. That told me how interested the local voters were in their elected officials’ ethics. I knew then that Neugent was getting free golf memberships, but I did not have the kind of evidence that a court would accept, nor even a tame ethics commission. If I had had that evidence, and if I had gone public with it, do you think it would have changed the outcome of the 2010 race between Neugent and me? Heck, it might have caused Neugent to get 5 times as many votes as I got :-).

    I personally think, Rick, this you are going after is far bigger than the SUFA case, in which I got involved with Linda Gottwald personally, when she called me. I think we talked maybe half an hour while I walked around my neighborhood on Little Torch Key. I frankly did not care for some of the arguments she was making, especially justifying her taking a county van full of dogs to Michigan, which I saw no way she had the county’s permission to do. Nor for her justifying herself having gone before the county commissioners in the Marathon Government Center, asking for more money for SUFA, as its director, without telling them she was leaving Monroe County and someone else would be running SUFA.

    I have no clue what the financial details and arguments were between SUFA and the county government. But I did not like how it felt to me when Linda called me described above. My recollection is, by the time we stopped talking on the telephone that day, Linda was not happy she had called me. I was not happy, either, wished I had not been brought into it. But it seems I tend to get brought into lots of things I wish I didn’t get brought into. I think you can relate to that. 🙂

    I think you are doing really good investigating and reporting of the county commissioners’ ethics, Rick, and I look forward to reading what else you report on that, and on whatever else causes you to want to chomp and gnaw down to the clean, shiny, white bone in the bright sunlight.

    The pen is mightier than the sword, thus the sword defends the pen.

  4. I don’t know what is more shameful, the BOCC closing their eyes and praying that this will go away or the blind eye of the other media in the Keys to these shameful County shenanigans. It would be funny except that it isn’t fun to hurt taxpayers time and again and again…

    Mr. Boettger, you are incredible!

  5. p.s. Why do they have to hire a $300/hr. outside attorney when Monroe County already has a stable of overpaid lawyers on staff?

  6. Just as they are closing their eyes and hoping this will all quietly go away before the IRS or state attorney gets interested, the commissioners will probably ignore your questions, Rick. But their pleas of ignorance as an excuse are a tad insincere…In the SUFA case, they knew they had broken the law all along – as evidenced by the closed sessions transcripts and the fact that the county attorney asked the SUFA attorney to quietly settle the case just an hour before the Appeals Court hearing – which ended in ruling in SUFA’s favor.

    Thank you again, Rick, for shining a bright light on these dark “public servants”.

  7. Thanks again.

    Definitely looking forward to the rest of the series. Maybe we’ll gain some insight into why the BOCC does some of the crazy things they do.