Jul 292016
 

 

George Neugent

by Rick Boettger…….

On Friday the Florida Ethics Commission meeting in Tallahassee concluded a 21-month investigation of long-serving George Neugent by finding “probable cause” he violated two ethical laws a total of three times. He got off, as expected, on the charge that initiated my investigation of his affairs: the destruction of SUFA, Stand Up For Animals, and its director, Linda Gottwald, in 2010.

My second charge was clear. I saw his financial disclosure forms for two recent years and they were so poorly done it was clear to me that he was making no attempt to inform the public, as required, of his financial affairs. He did not report a large annuity. He did not follow the clear directions to be specific about his assets and debts: just vague words like “savings” and “medical.”  He did this for two years, and is liable for sanctions for both.

In the closed Ethics Commission session, it is on the record why he did this.  He regarded the forms as “a pain in the ass.” He said old-timers told him when he was first elected to say as little as possible. He was also told the only time this was a problem was if someone made a complaint to the Ethics Commission. This shameless honesty got some chuckles from the generally serious Commissioners.

My third complaint was actually an inquiry to the Commission’s staff to investigate Neugent’s relation to his local golf club. I had two informants tell me he was receiving benefits that I found were not being reported on a standard form requiring you report benefits over $100 per quarter. For years he received what the Commission valued as $1,500 per quarter. Neugent’s defense for this was that he quit two years ago—actually, he quit three months after I filed this ethics complaint. The Commissioners ruled this as no defense. He also offered to fill the forms out in arrears.  Again, they ruled this was no defense.

So I filed three complaints against him, one tentative in that people who would not talk to me did fully inform the Commission’s investigator about the golf membership. He received the equivalent of guilty on two of the three, one on two counts. I am elated that our beloved and valuable Ethics Commission upheld not just me but the general public interest by sanctioning Neugent for his flouting of the law.

The County has spun this with hilarious dexterity, writing a press release as though they had never read my actual complaint. They fail to note the difference between my complaints and those added by the investigators after they got involved in the facts. I made one charge regarding SUFA: misuse of his position to obtain a benefit for others. The Ethics Commission added a charge I never made, that this benefited his “friends.” I mentioned his close relations with the group that got SUFA’s contract, but I knew it would be too hard to prove friendship, so that was not my official complaint—there was no need.

Regarding the golf membership, I only charged him with not reporting a gift, if indeed the gift was found to have been made and accepted. The Ethics Commission itself made up the charge of his soliciting a gift and having it affect his vote, and also the charge that it was “unauthorized compensation.” No one ever told me about either of these, and no hint of either was in my official complaint.

But the County has spun the fact that the Ethics Commission created extra charges, which it then dismissed, as a slam on my own batting average here, which was two-plus for three. A bonus for which I can take no credit is that Neugent hired a big-name attorney, I sure hope at his own expense. Any value he got from this I cannot see, making the cost a self-inflicted punishment. I hired no attorney, handling this myself.

I had basically no hope for a favorable holding on SUFA. I recently sent them remarkably damning statements from the County’s closed sessions on their lawsuit against SUFA, which have just become available.  It explains why the County lost twice at the County Court level and once at the Appellate.  And why they settled when County Attorney Bob Schillinger said SUFA’s countersuit would charge them with “setting her up to give the contract to someone else.” Then, it was quit fast and give her our tax dollars not to put that charge before a jury. The Ethics Commission said they did not care about this extra evidence or the other clear indications that Neugent was pushing the County in the lawsuit.

I went into this as much to test the Ethics Commission’s ability to charge a public official with misconduct as to get them to do anything. I’d been told there was no hope there, after seeing their weak investigations of local nepotism charges and the infamous dinner on Sunset Key for local officials. What I found out in two hours in the Commission’s offices the day before the hearing was that almost NO charges of official misconduct are ever upheld. I looked at all of 2015’s charges, and my rough estimate now is that perhaps 2% are held for probable cause.

I am going back to Tallahassee for a couple more days with the data to get exact numbers for a different year, one they feel has a higher proportion of probable cause numbers, and for which the full process will have been completed through punishment. I wanted to see exactly how they handled a case I am intimately familiar with, and my complaints against them in the case of SUFA are profound. From my 2-hour snapshot, I could infer similar investigative prejudices informing other cases.

While supporting the Ethics Commission’s noble mission, and clear ability to enforce ethical standards in some areas, I hope to be able to increase their ability to fairly serve the People’s interest in cases of official misconduct.

Here in The Blue Paper, I will be doing a multi-part analysis of the SUFA fiasco, informed by the remarkable material from the closed sessions. While I still maintain that the facts support Neugent’s clear role in initiating and guiding SUFA’s destruction, different groups became just as guilty: the other county commissioners, the county attorney’s office, other media, and the community at large. The closed session transcripts open a dark array of conduct we would be horrified to have happen to any of us, and I hope my reporting stops it from ever happening again.

ETHICS COMMISSION REPORT

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COUNTY PRESS RELEASE

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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.
 July 29, 2016  Posted by at 9:27 pm * Featured Story *, Issue #177, News, Rick Boettger  Add comments

  14 Responses to “County Mayor Pro Tem George Neugent Found in Violation and Facing Sanctions on Three Ethics Charges”

  1. Sometime after Dennis Ward was sworn in as our state attorney in 2008, he went to a county commission meeting and told the 5 commissioners he thought they should beef up their ethics rules, and make sure all of their ethics rules applied to them, as well as to county government staff. I was at that commission meeting. The reaction on the dais was having been insulted, except for commissioner Kim Wigington, who agreed with Ward. George Neugent seemed the most visibly insulted, but I think Sylvia Murphy was close behind.

    Kim began working on a new set of ethics rules, which found no support in the other 4 commissioners. After some time, what happened was county staff and the other 4 commissioners co-opted Kim’s effort and made it their own watered down effort and it came before the county commission. During citizen comments, I told Kim, speaking straight to her on the dais, it was a joke, and she should vote against it. She voted against it. As I recall, it passed 4-1.

    Kim served one term. and despite many efforts to cause her to run again, probably without opposition, she declined. That’s how Danny Kohlage became a county commissioner after he retired from being the Monroe County Clerk.

    I have no confidence in State Attorney Catherine Vogel; I didn’t like her for state attorney when she ran against Dennis Ward in 2012. Since Dennis is running against Vogel this year, I pitch to Dennis, what does he think about George Neugent’s ethics violations? Especially the $6,000 a year comped golf club membership? Does Dennis think any of those violations violate state criminal laws? If so, if he is elected, will he prosecute Neugent?

    Perhaps there is some state rule or law that Ward cannot comment now on something that might be his to determine later, if he is elected. If so, I’d like for him to figure out a way to answer my question in a way that does not get him in dutch but does reveal his true sentiments, like he revealed when he went before the county commission and messed in their business, which was not his business, was how 4 commissioners viewed it.

    As for the Florida Ethics Commission, I was surprised they found any wrongdoing. In the past, they have struck me as something that was created only to make it look like the state government was concerned about ethics in government. I have similar view of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

  2. Good morning mayor Carruthers, So Sorry about the unfortunate revelation that one of Your fellow commissioners(King George) was found to be a Crooked Lying Cheating Politician. Us voters in the King’s geremandered district knew it when we saw his Machine wins in re-election bids #2,#3, #4, & #5. So now the the whole county, from Ocean Grief, to Key Weird have been OFFICIALLY informed that King George is and has been soiled goods. The BOCC is the Best group of politicians that Money can buy. What do you think of yourself when you look in the mirror?? Saint or politician. How can you tell if a politician is lying?? Their lips are moving and some gibberish comes out. GOD, help the voters and taxpayers in Monroe County deal with their politicians.

  3. Wow. I regard Neugent as the “least bad” of all the commissioners. As in, he’s as good as it gets right now. Sad but true.

    That said, I’m not at all surprised that Neugent has committed ethics violations. I’m surprised he was found guilty of it. I’m sure the rest have their own skeletons just waiting to be dug up. It’s easy to see something is very wrong. The hard part is making it stick. So this is incredible news in that regard.

    I look forward to your series on SUFA. I was aware of SUFA while it was happening but not that knowledgeable about the details. I think we’ll all gain valuable (and sickening) insight into how the county really operates.

  4. Congratulations, Rick, on a successful endeavor which I thought would go nowhere! What always bothered me most about Neugent is how routinely he would be extremely nice to a person’s face but then maliciously stab that person in the back, both personally and as a Commissioner. He definitely deserves this black mark on his “reputation.” Additionally, SHARK failed of their own accord, so that also is indicative of his extremely bad judgment. Thank you for taking on this time-consuming challenge, and I look forward to your future articles. -Helana

  5. Rick- I had little faith in the Ethics committee, especially when their only question to me was if I could tell them the phone number of then-commissioner Mario Di Gennaro. But your tenacity proved that jousting at windmills can reap rewards.

    Thank you for being the only reporter in the Keys with the courage to tell the truth about the machinations of the Monroe County, the bribes from Cora Baggs and the other members of SHARK and what really happened behind the scenes of the County’s attack on SUFA.

    Linda

  6. That’s a lot of hard digging and persistence, Rick. You might believe it, I was alerted to this “breaking news” blue paper report in a nap dream, in which I was scratching a border collie’s nose with rose petals, and she was loving it. I woke up, went online, and – voila! – your article.

    You may recall I ran against George Neugent in 2006 and 2010, when I lived on Little Torch Key.

    Not reporting a large annuity, I don’t know how serious that is, unless the annuity was purchased for George by someone looking for backscratching from a county commissioner. The annuity should have been reported, though.

    I remember someone I knew somewhat emailing me that George’s membership at the golf club in Marathon was being comped by the club. This information was said to have come from someone working in the club office to the person who had tipped me off. I knew from George that he liked to play golf at that golf club. I said I had wondered the same thing, but the person in the club who actually knew about it needed to go public with it. I was told that was not going to happen, and that was the end of it for me, other than I kept wondering.

    So it appears the club was comping George’s membership. What comes to my thoughts is, was that a bribe of a county commissioner? Or a friendly back scratch in case the club needed the commissioner’s assistance down the road, or for past assistance rendered? And who paid for the golf cart,drinks, meals sometimes? Developers? When I was a boy, my father often said knowing how to play golf is really important, because all business deals were made on the golf course. I think that is Donald Trump’s view, as well.

    I had heard George played golf at Ocean Reef Club also, and I had wondered if he had a comped membership there? At that time, perhaps still, Ocean Reef had less expensive non-resident memberships.

    Sloan Bashinsky, Key West mayor write-in candidate, Nov 4 ballot

  7. It is clear that Rick put a lot of personal time and work into this filing. Thank you, Rick! Nice work getting ANYTHING to stick!
    I believe that the County funds the full legal defense of their officials, so Neugent spent little of his own hoard in defending himself. His lawyer was skilled. He had Neugent plead reckless and indifferent paper filing instead of intent to deceive.
    I think it is worthy of note that he claims he was coached by other BOCC in how to file. Was that in open session Sunshine? Would we find similar “reckless and indifferent filing” with other BOCC members?
    I think it was probably Neugent’s first term in which he effected the abandonment of a public road and boat ramp on Little Torch to a resident on that road by placing the abandonment within a bulk approval item for the renewal of contracts for the supply of paper towels, toilet paper, and such. where nobody would notice. (1999-2000) There is much sleaziness and deprivation of public access involved with road abandonment in Monroe County, but usually a formal paper goes to County Engineering/Public Works before the road is officially abandoned. That Little Torch boat launch abandonment flew completely under the radar. I never trusted Neugent at all after that trickery.
    I am especially suspicious of Neugent’s sudden opinion switch from questioning why vacuum sewers were not employed in the Cudjoe Regional to being perhaps the strongest proponent of E-1 brand grinder pumps. What was the motivation for that? Certainly it was not the science, or the public economics, or the public service. And it was certainly not to the benefit of the grinder pump “losers” who had property and electrical service extorted from them as additional “contribution in aid of construction”.

    • As to who coached Neugent – take a look at Kolhage’s financial disclosure forms. They are vague. Plus they don’t add up. Something appears to be missing – like he’s not reporting income or liabilities.

      Kolhage’s office, of course, was responsible for the shady audit of SUFA.

      Link: http://public.ethics.state.fl.us/search.cfm?date={ts%20%272016-07-31%2010:56:37%27}&CFID=1563356&CFTOKEN=4523d4b9bf2d867e-8E915A29-93AF-81DD-EFF038925AC8ED60

      You can search by filer. Kolhage’s forms for the past four years are viewable.

  8. Just watch….next we will hear the innocent “OHH, I DIDN’T KNOW IT WAS A BIG DEAL”… classic Hillary Clinton response….
    politicians are going to school on at the HRC school where you major in “how to coat yourself in Teflon”……

  9. credit is given where credit is due. excellent job shaquille.

  10. Great job Rick! You need now to look into the “close” connection George has with Waste Management!

  11. This whole fiasco, with who’s a bigger lier, who can misappropriate more money, who’s spinning the biggest scam at the taxpayers expense, a person could expect someone describing tales out of a new Carl Hiaasen novel. But alas, it’s only politics as usual in the Florida Keys. And most oldtimers’ll scratch their butt and comment-Yep, that’s the way it’s always been so why change it. Doesn’t matter nohow.

  12. Thanks for your support and further leads, Readers. No one does writing like this to be popular–I am too scary for much of polite society–but I must admit it encourages me to hear from that small percentage of the population who gives a damn and reads.

    Further, you take the time to log in and submit your comments. I am blessed to have the time and money to do large-scale investigations. Your taking the time to encourage people like me in the Blue Paper is indeed part of our fighting the good fight.

    And we must all remember, without the Blue Paper, none of us has a voice. I send them $20/month. I encourage any of you able to afford it to consider doing the same. Or $5, whatever.

  13. What Neugent did to SUFA and its director Linda Gottwald is beyond reprehensible, even for a corrupt commissioner. Gottwald accomplished the impossible — she transformed a once woeful animal shelter into a happy place for both the animals and the people that worked or visited there.