Listen Here, You Boneheads, We Ain't Broke so Don't Try and Fix Us

School board warmly embraces ethics commission

Just a few hours before his avuncular mug would appear on national television as an expert commentator on the judiciary's role in the presidential election, retired Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerald Kogan made an offer to the Miami-Dade County school board: He would draw up ground rules for a proposed ethics commission. The largely skeptical elected officials on the dais weren't sure they needed one.

A white-haired, bespectacled gentleman, Kogan was the star in an ethics A list of speakers who, on this mid-November afternoon, tried to persuade eight members of the school board that they should support colleague Marta Perez's crusade to bring ethical accountability to the fourth-largest school district in the nation. It was not a foregone conclusion that Perez would receive the backing of a majority of the board. In October, when a panel of board-appointed advisors recommended that an ethics commission be created for the school district, several members balked at the suggestion. Manty Sabates Morse argued that the district was doing just fine without one. "Up to now I really didn't think we had a problem," she said. Later she testily asked, "What doesn't work? Maybe if you can explain to me what doesn't work, I would feel that we need this. But at this moment, nobody has given me any proof."

Proof and political pressure were provided as Kogan, head of the Alliance for Ethical Government, relinquished the podium to Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas; Commissioner Miguel Diaz de la Portilla; Joe Centorino, head of the public-corruption unit at the State Attorney's Office; Robert Meyers, executive director of the county's Commission on Ethics and Public Trust; Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce leaders; parents of students; and others who implored the board to respond to the scandals that have been well documented in news accounts and investigations by Centorino's staff.

A doctoral student at Nova Southeastern University referred to a file several inches thick, stuffed with newspaper articles she collected over the previous two years documenting school-district improprieties ranging from misspent funds and padded construction contracts, to sexual-harassment cases, to schools changing athletes' grades, to the recent controversy surrounding the political campaign of board member Demetrio Perez, Jr.'s son. Karelia Martinez-Carbonell is preparing a dissertation on ethics in the school district for her public-administration degree. "These things that have happened that we all read about? I don't know how any of you could have missed," she had responded to Morse's query back in October. "Whatever you have is not working, and the perception is that something needs to be done."

After about an hour of testimony, board members agreed to let Kogan's group, superintendent Roger Cuevas, and others prepare recommendations for an ethics commission, but then decided they wouldn't even begin considering them until June of next year.

The board also weakened Perez's proposal by changing Kogan's mission from "drafting recommended bylaws" to simply "making recommendations." Actual bylaws seemed alarmingly premature to board members such as Morse, Solomon Stinson, and the retiring G. Holmes Braddock. The vote was a tiny step toward an ethics commission but far from Perez's original call for an independent inspector general, a motion she said "sank like a lead balloon" earlier this year.

But even this nominal advance wasn't undertaken without substantial arm-twisting from speakers and veiled threats from various board members. Following are excerpts from the November 15 hearing:

Kogan appealed to the board's sense of reason. "Today ethics is a big thing in government, whether it be our county government, whether it be the school board, or whether it be our state or national government," he asserted solemnly. "This is your opportunity to allow the people of Dade County to understand and to realize that the school board is serious when you're talking about ethics. I want to point out that this is not a commission that does any witch-hunting or anything of that nature. It's a commission, as the county has, whose sole purpose is to make sure that we keep an ethical climate in government. I'm sure the school board would want the same thing. I urge you to seriously consider doing this. The people of this county expect this, and they want this, and I recommend it to you."

When board chairwoman Perla Tabares Hantman introduced Penelas as the next speaker, Perez smiled broadly. Sitting next to her, Stinson slumped back in his chair, stone-faced. Penelas proposed to extend jurisdiction of the county's ethics commission to include the school board. "Perhaps there's an opportunity, rather than reinventing the wheel, of having these two efforts merge," he ventured. "Here you have an ethics commission that's in place, has jurisdiction over items such as enforcing conflict-of-interest statutes, code-of-ethics ordinances. I want to make that as an offer to you."

Centorino's face was inscrutable and smooth as he delivered thoughtful testimony, but worry lines appeared in his forehead when he raised his eyebrows to emphasize a point. "Over the past three or four years, there have been an enormous amount of resources that have gone into the area of ethics and corruption in the county," he said. "We feel it's time for the Dade County Public Schools, as the largest public employer with the largest budget, to add its voice to the growing chorus of public and private agencies that believe it's important to take this step to ensure the integrity and ethics of our public service in Miami-Dade County."

He continued, "The role of this ethics board would fall somewhere between law enforcement and the administration in educating the uninformed and guiding people who are perplexed about what the rules are, and, on occasion, punishing those who are miscreant. Just as the law-enforcement community cannot by itself deal with juvenile crime, we depend on some discipline, some direction in the home. This is an opportunity for the Dade County Public Schools to provide that discipline, direction, and education in its own house. As the Dade County Public Schools and as the example we want to set for the children of this community, you are in a unique position to provide that leadership."

Leslie Coller, a parent and member of the advisory panel that recommended an ethics commission, practically begged for leadership. "We feel very strongly, and there are an awful lot of people here today who speak to this, that you must go forward," she pleaded. "Please do that today."

Despite the fervor evinced by several speakers, Solomon Stinson expressed disdain for the notion of a powerful ethics commission. "I don't want anyone to get the idea that I'm against ethics," he clarified. "I'm all for ethics. I'm for ethics for the judiciary on down."

But Stinson saw a trap that could lead to a kind of double jeopardy for criminally charged school-district employees who manage to beat the rap. People who have been cleared of criminal wrongdoing by the courts, he proclaimed, should not also have to answer to an ethics board. "The other thing that really concerns me about an ethics commission," he continued, "sometimes what's ethical for one person is somewhat unethical for the other, depending on who comprises the ethics commission. I am for looking at recommendations as to how it would be structured, how it all comes together, and then we have something to talk about. I am not the least bit interested in creating a monster in this school system that you don't know what to do with and that you can't kill. Perhaps I'd feel different if I were an outsider, but having been a part of this school system as an employee for 36 years and having sat on this board for almost 4 years, I have little concern regarding the ethics and the ethical standards this board has adhered to over my entire longevity with the school system."

Stinson went on: "If in the minds of the people out there in the bigger community we should create this, then I think perhaps to allay any fears, we should go ahead and create it. However, when it is created, I am really, really concerned that we are not creating an I-got-you kind of commission, and if we don't get you legally, we get you ethically.

"Generally ethics commissions act on many anonymous kinds of complaints on professional practices.... I can sit down and write a letter on Nelson Diaz, or Joe Mathos, Carol Cortes, and Henry Fraind, and somebody will be out, perhaps, depending on the strength of the allegation. A case will be opened, and the ethics commission will be looking at 'em. I just want to clearly understand, clearly know the parameters of that ethics commission, and I want myself to be very, very clear that we are not setting up a situation where there are two bites at the apple."

Braddock, pontificating from his cold war-era orange swivel chair for the last time in his 38-year career on the school board, was adamantly opposed to an ethics commission but said he would bow to public pressure as other board members seemed inclined to do. "I have a hard time seeing an ethics commission here when we've already got one [at the state level] under which we operate," he argued. "You know, we are told constantly to operate like a business. How many of these businesses in Dade County have an ethics commission? Does the Miami Heraldhave one? Does Burdines have one? Do the airlines have them? If we are going to operate like a business, maybe we ought to operate like a business and not have an ethics commission unless they put them in, and then we'll say, “We'll operate like a business. We'll put in an ethics commission.'"

The real reason for an ethics commission, Braddock revealed, was not that the school district needed it but that the public wanted it. "I almost get the feeling that this is a knee-jerk reaction, reacting to the public. And I always have a hard time reacting to the public 'cause I'm not so high on the public," he sneered. "I never have been, and I'm not going to go out of office being high on the public. I've never thought we had a very bright public, and I've said that many a time. The public is a reactionary audience. The public reacts to an individual situation. When parents used to call me raising hell about something, I didn't worry about them raising hell. I knew I could outlast them. No matter how high and emotional they were about the issue, they were going to forget about it in half an hour, an hour, two or three hours. All I had to do is call them back at dinnertime when Mom was fixing that dinner, and she couldn't talk to me, and that finished the problem.

"I found most people have a knee-jerk reaction to most kinds of things. They react to what they read in the press, whether it's true or false. They react to it. Most of them don't sit down and figure things out for themselves. [Board member] Dr. Krop mentioned that he had read the definition of ethics as doing what's right when no one's looking. Who knows what right is? As far as I'm concerned, only one person knew what's right, and he got nailed to a cross.

"I always objected when somebody came to this microphone over the years and said, “I want you to vote right,' and maybe five minutes later somebody else on the other side of the issue said, “I want you to vote right.' And both of them had different definitions of what right was. I don't know what right is all the time. I know what I think is right at the time I voted, at the time I do it. But the minute I say, “I'm going to vote right,' or that I voted right, that means I've set myself up as all God almighty. I'm all-knowing and anybody voted against me is wrong. 'Cause I've set myself up as saying I voted right, I always vote right. That means anybody voted against me was voting wrong, 'cause I'm saying I know what right is. So this whole thing gives me problems. I'll probably support it with a lot of trepidation."

And so he did.

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