LARGO - A former Treasure Island commissioner has been hit with a $5,000 fine for virtually the same offense brought against Mayor Pat Gerard.
The difference is that Gerard got off scot-free while Irving Ellsworth received what is believed to be the biggest fine ever for an official in Pinellas County.
Amazingly, in Gerard's case the fact finder found probable cause but then recommended that no further action be taken, making the Florida Ethics Commission the laughing stock of the state.
In both cases, Gerard and Ellsworth cast votes while members of their respective city commissions that benefited their employers.
Gerard was a little more cautious, however, it appears. Just prior to discussing the pending matter at a Largo City Commission meeting, Gerard, then a commissioner, introduced Alan Zimmet, the city's lawyer, as having something to say.
Zimmet, faithful lap dog that he is, said that Gerard's apparent conflict of interest was not that at all and that based on a prior Ethics Commission case in St. Petersburg, Gerard was free to discuss and vote on the issue.
The issue at hand was whether to allow Family Resources, Inc., for whom Gerard works, to use the old library building for its programs.
Further examination showed that the case Zimmet cited as precedent was not at all like the Gerard situation, culpable ignorance, as it were.
Florida law specifically forbids an elected official from voting on any pending business that would inure to the benefit of his or her employer.
Gerard's act was a clear cut and indisputable violation of that law. However, City Manager Steve Stanton favored bringing Family Resources into the picture. Stanton is Zimmet's master (and a salary of $2,000-plus a week is not to be scoffed at) and Zimmet found a way - erroneous as it was - to allow Gerard to participate.
A Largo resident, Curtis Holmes, brought the ethics complaint against Gerard. After the Ethics Commission made its findings, Holmes attempted to speak during citizen comments at a Largo commission meeting, but Gerard squelched him.
The commission, riddled with instances of conflicts of interest, nepotism and cronyism, now is weighing methods of limiting comments from citizens, apparently to ensure that matters that might be embarrassing to the elected officials are not brought up in that forum.
The Ethics Commission investigation into Gerard's conflict of interest turned up the admission from Zimmet that, yeah, he was wrong on that advice given Gerard.
The neat thing on something like the Gerard case is that the administration - and Gerard - accomplished their mission while the worst position for the lawyer is that he merely says, "I was wrong."
Apparently on the basis that she took a lawyer's advice in performing her illegal and wrongful vote gave Gerard a free pass with the Ethics Commission, thus bringing into the annals of the law a new defense - "It's okay because my lawyer told me to do it."
It appears that in Treasure Island Ellsworth's mistake was not to proceed in the manner that he did based on a lawyer's advice.
But Gerard skated, just as she did on the election law violations of 2005, when the excuse was ignorance of the law, a defense that does not work, as every eighth grader knows. In her case it worked.
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