LARGO – Pat Gerard was sworn in as Largo’s first woman mayor Tuesday night but takes office under an ever-deepening cloud of mystery surrounding the disposition of an ethics complaint lodged against her.
A Florida Ethics Commission investigation by James H. Peterson III, who serves as chief advocate of the commission, found Gerard guilty of voting on an issue that benefited her employer – a violation of Florida law – but mysteriously recommended that no further action be taken.
In the final sentence of his analysis of the case received by the Ethics Commission on January 26, Peterson wrote: “Therefore, based upon the evidence before the Commission, I recommend that the Commission find probable cause that Respondent (Gerard) violated Sectrion 112.314(3), Florida Statutes, but take no further action.”
The commission did not release its report until March 8, last week, after the election in Largo that brought Gerard into office.
Peterson gave no rationale in his report for the apparent contradiction of finding Gerard guilty, in effect, on the one hand and suggesting no further action on the other, making a mockery, in some observers’ views, of the Ethics Commission itself.
Curtis Holmes, a Largo resident, who is the complainant in the ethics charge against Gerard said he was in the process of contacting Charlie Crist, Florida attorney general, for possible further action.
Peterson, a 1977 FSU graduate and Stetson Law School graduate, cited advice from Alan Zimmet, the Largo city lawyer, in which Zimmet advised Gerard to vote on a question October 18, 2005, as a defense for Gerard.
She voted on a question that gave her employer, Family Resources, Inc., an advantage in putting a program in the old Largo library.
Thus, Gerard’s primary defense to the conflict of interest charge seems to be the novel and legally insufficient “my lawyer said it was okay.”
However, in his interview in connection with the probe, Zimmet said he was wrong in giving that advice.
In his contact with Peterson, Zimmet said that the two opinions he relied on in giving Gerard a green light to vote turned out to be inapplicable when he investigated further.
Peterson’s report says that Zimmet “said that had he known of these other cases at the time of the vote he would have instructed Commissioner Gerard to abstain from voting.”
Thus, QED – Largo’s city administration got Gerard’s vote on an issue close to its heart and the worst case with Zimmet is that he was mistaken.
The specific law the investigator said that Gerard violated is Sect. 112.3143(3)(a) of Florida Statutes which says –
“No county, municipal or other local public officer shall vote in an official capacity upon any measure which would inure to his or her special private gain or loss; which he or she knows would inure to the special private gain or loss of any principal by whom he or she is retained . . .; or which her or she knows would inure to the special private gain or loss of a relative or business associate of the public officer.”
The law seems to be eminently clear, regardless of any exceptions Zimmet at the time claimed to have found and which, it turned out, to be erroneous.
Then there is the mystery surrounding the evolution of dates connected to the whole cloudy business.
Peterson’s report was received by the Ethics Commission January 26. In a startling examination, Peterson has signed and dated in his own hand his recommendation to the commission January 27.
So he submitted it, apparently, after it was received.
A further question arises on the Ethics Commission setting March 3 as a date for a hearing. But when the agenda for the commission on that date was issued, the Gerard case does not appear on it.
Holmes said he was told that it had been postponed.
But it was reported that Gerard went to Tallahassee on March 3 to appear before the commission.
“The whole thing raises more questions than it answers,” one source who wanted to remain unidentified said. “Here we have a finding of guilt, in substance, but no further action. Very curious.”
Also sworn in Tuesday as new commission members were Gigi Arntzen, long involved in Largo affairs, and Rodney Woods, variously self-described as a “Cajun,” a “Creole,” a homeowner, a renter, a family man, and a bachelor. Woods is the first African-American to be elected to the Largo commission.
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