Neugent to Accept “Censure and Reprimand”

gavelUpdated to add thoughts regarding the statute governing ethics violations and the statute governing criminal violations.

According to this item in the Blue Paper, county commissioner George Neugent is going to accept the findings of the Florida Commission on Ethics (FCOE).  He apparently failed to disclose a free country club membership and he failed to provide adequate information on his financial disclosure forms.

FCOE didn’t find any evidence that Neugent misused his position regarding the Stand Up for Animals (SUFA) matter.  But it appears that few if any public officials are ever sanctioned for misuse of position.  Rick Boettger, who filed the ethics complaint and who has been following the SUFA situation closely from the beginning is digging into the FCOE’s handling of such complaints.

So far, this story hasn’t been picked up by any other news outlet in the Keys.  Not that I’m aware of anyway.  I guess they don’t think it’s newsworthy when a county commissioner admits to ethics violations?

The Scandal Sheet has been updated accordingly.

Additional thoughts:

My understanding is that the FCOE enforces one set of statutes (Chapter 12 Part 3), but there is actually another statute that addresses criminal behavior by public officials.

Here is an excerpt from the chapter on standards of conduct for public officials – paragraph 112.313(6), which is enforced by the FCOE.

MISUSE OF PUBLIC POSITION.No public officer, employee of an agency, or local government attorney shall corruptly use or attempt to use his or her official position or any property or resource which may be within his or her trust, or perform his or her official duties, to secure a special privilege, benefit, or exemption for himself, herself, or others. This section shall not be construed to conflict with s. 104.31.

And here is part of the statute that covers criminal misuse of position.  Bolding is mine.

838.022 Official misconduct.

(1) It is unlawful for a public servant or public contractor, to knowingly and intentionally obtain a benefit for any person or to cause unlawful harm to another, by:

(a) Falsifying, or causing another person to falsify, any official record or official document;
(b) Concealing, covering up, destroying, mutilating, or altering any official record or official document, except as authorized by law or contract, or causing another person to perform such an act; or
(c) Obstructing, delaying, or preventing the communication of information relating to the commission of a felony that directly involves or affects the government entity served by the public servant or public contractor.

(2) For the purposes of this section:

(a) The term “public servant” does not include a candidate who does not otherwise qualify as a public servant.
(b) An official record or official document includes only public records.
(3) Any person who violates this section commits a felony of the third degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084.

The criminal statute specifically prohibits a public official from using his or her position to “cause unlawful harm to another”.  The FCOE found no evidence that Neugent was trying to engineer a special benefit for himself or an associate with his handling of the SUFA matter and the ethics statute doesn’t mention “causing harm” as an actionable offense.

A plain reading of the matter indicates that SUFA was certainly harmed by Neugent’s actions and those of other county officials.  Could this be considered unlawful harm?  And were any official documents tampered with to facilitate that harm?  If so, it could be a third degree felony.

Also worth noting, the criminal statute was recently changed.  Those changes took effect on October 1, 2016 and make it less impossible to convict public officers of official misconduct.  The SUFA shenanigans began in 2010, so I’m not sure the new language would apply.  That’s a question for a lawyer I suppose.

As always, I look forward to what Mr. Boettger has to say.  It’s too bad that private citizens have to go so far out of their way to ensure that public officials actually do face some consequences for questionable actions, but I’m eternally grateful that there are people willing and able to see that they do.

 

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