Justice may be blind but it is not even-handed….

On Wednesday, April 20th, the Florida Ethics Commission will publish the results for Complaint No. 15-114, In re ROBERT WEINROTH and Complaint No. 15-116,   In re GEORGE BROWN. In both these cases, the Ethics Commission found No Probable Cause and concluded these cases without action.

A very disappointing result!

Having traveled to Tallahassee to attend these proceedings, I, the Complainant, witnessed firsthand a system that, although orderly, was wrought with bias in favor of the governmental official(s) and clearly weighted against the individual bringing the complaint.

How so????

Well to begin, an individual filing a complaint is limited to the four corners of the sworn written document. The complaints, once filed, are shared with the respondents and their attorney before they, the complaints, pass an initial finding of ‘legal sufficiency’. Once ‘legal sufficiency’ is found, an investigator is assigned and an investigative report developed.

So far so good…..

Not so fast….At the Ethics Commission, blind justice seems weighted in favor of the respondents, the city officials. During the investigation, both the respondents and the complainant are interviewed by the investigator with a report generated to the Commission Advocate; the staff attorney assigned responsibility for the case.

No further interaction is allowed the Complainant. No other opportunity is afforded the Complainant for review of the investigator’s findings or for discussion on the legal merits of the case with the Advocate. The attorney for the Respondents, however, is allowed considerable interaction in advance of the Probable Cause Determination with the staff and with the Advocate assigned the case. Respondents’ counsel files a response to the complaint but this response is not shared with the Complainant. Counsel is also afforded access to the Commission Advocate in advance of the Probable Cause hearing, again, an opportunity not provided to the Complainant.

These inequities, in and of themselves, reek with unfairness in the preparation of and presentation to the Ethics Commission; a circumstance that this Complainant was unaware of…shame on me….

More egregious, however, is that under the current rules governing Ethics Commission proceeding, even when the Complainant chooses to travel to Tallahassee and be present at the hearing, the Complainant has no voice; no opportunity to speak directly to the Commission. Yet, the Respondents’, through counsel, is afforded the opportunity to speak to the Commission directly; a final opportunity to clarify their case, respond to inquiry from individual members, and, perhaps, influence the final thinking of the body. An actual bias truly leaving me, the Complainant disillusioned and with an overwhelming feeling of impotence.

Why?

Well to begin, not having equal opportunity to speak with the Advocate in advance of the hearing allowed oversights in the Advocate’s presentation to proceed unaddressed.

It is not my intent to challenge the Commission’s decisions in these matters but rather to say that if, I, as the Complainant, were afforded the opportunity to speak on an equal basis as was Respondents’ counsel and the Advocate, my input may have presented additional clarity to the issues and a better response to Commissioners’ questions from the dais; an opportunity that may have swayed the determinations differently.   This experience in attending the Probable Cause Determination with such a silence imposed upon me, the Complainant, was extremely deafening and fundamentally unfair; the right to a ‘full and fair hearing’ is essential for all sides of any legal arguments.

One worthwhile outcome from this aggrieved experience was the comments made by the Commission’s Vice Chairman that although he would vote for a finding of no probable cause, he stated on the record that the underlying circumstances leading to this hearing, were direct results of “bad government” at the local level and offered as an admonition that remedy resides properly with the local residents at the ballot box. I concur….voting out elected officials that act so badly is the one best action available to remedy this and other complained of situations at the local level.

As an aside, in the Commission’s public session that day in advance of the Weinroth and Brown hearings, the Commission took up the direct question of whether to amend procedure to allow participation by Complainant at the Probable Cause Determination….

After some discussion, a divided Commission motioned to table the item until the next Commission meeting in six weeks so staff may look at ways to address this fundamental unfairness.

I, as a public advocate for fairness within these types of proceedings and now with firsthand experience to speak will be in attendance at that hearing to again advocate for not removing the blindfold from lady justice but, rather, for removing the weighted bias currently making these proceeding fundamentally unfair.

Al Zucaro

cc: Governor Rick Scott; Attorney General Pam Bondi; all members of the Commission on Ethics;