Ethics and E-mails

Miami-Dade's ethics czar decides to use the Internet to upbraid the inspector general. Bad decision

My July 29 column about the clash between the county ethics commission and Inspector General Christopher Mazzella sent paper clips flying and fax machines buzzing. The conflict centers on threats by the ethics commission's chairman and executive director to curtail Mazzella's criminal investigations into public corruption.

Knowledgeable people responded with letters to New Times, either lambasting me as a hopelessly biased, cross-dressing ignoramus (see Michael Murawski's letter in this issue) or agreeing with me. I couldn't be happier, because this now-public debate will draw attention to the ethics commission's open meeting next week. Any attempt to clip Mazzella's wings will most likely be discussed there. (Meeting information included below.)

In the column, I criticized ethics chairman Kerry Rosenthal's July 1 letter to Mazzella. "Particularly troubling is the fact that your agency has taken on certain responsibilities reserved for law enforcement agencies," Rosenthal wrote, adding this imperative: "You will need to refocus agency priorities; that is to focus more on audit-related tasks and move away from criminal investigations." The five-member ethics commission, appointed by an independent panel, hires and can fire the head of the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), which investigates fraud, waste, and mismanagement involving county money or employees. (I disclosed that I worked at the OIG for about a year in 2001.)

Unsolicited  advice to ethics commission executive director Robert Meyers: Make better use of the "delete" key
Steve Satterwhite
Unsolicited advice to ethics commission executive director Robert Meyers: Make better use of the "delete" key

Details

The Commission on Ethics and Public Trust monthly meeting takes place at 10:00 a.m. Wednesday, August 18, at 19 W Flagler St, Ste 220. Call 305-579-2594.

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I also pointed out that Robert Meyers, executive director of the ethics commission who, like Mazzella, serves at the pleasure of the commission, had actually written the letter; Rosenthal merely signed it. Meyers has been upset with Mazzella for some time now. Among other things, he accuses the OIG of not sharing information or cooperating on investigations.

Although he didn't write a letter to New Times, Meyers did sound off in two e-mail messages to Mazzella, which I obtained through Florida's public-records law. The first proves Mazzella's point that corruption investigators must be very careful about sharing information.

Meyers wrote that first e-mail on a friend's unsecured home computer. Worse, in the message he revealed sensitive information about an ongoing investigation.

On the afternoon of Friday, July 30, Meyers was at the home of his friend Peter Schmitt, a writer and lecturer at the University of Miami. Meyers is abroad on a cruise vacation, and Schmitt declined comment, so I don't know why he was at Schmitt's house. But apparently he just couldn't wait until Monday to communicate with Mazzella. So he used Schmitt's personal computer and his Earthlink e-mail account to dash off his missive. "Although I am disappointed that [sic] felt the need to take the question of your office's accountability to the media and to launch a personal attack against me, I consider it a case of overreaction on your part," he began. "I would like to think that your office is capable of sharing information or informing the Ethics Commission when you are conducting an investigation of a matter that is within the primary jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission. However, recent events suggest that I may be mistaken."

As a "perfect example," he cited Mazzella's investigation of John Cosgrove, who resigned as chairman of the Citizen's Independent Transportation Trust after the OIG reported he had a conflict of interest. Meyers argued that the investigation could have placed the ethics commission and the OIG in a "difficult predicament" had Cosgrove sought a conflict-of-interest opinion from the commission.

"The more recent example happened today," Meyers continued, "and it involves your intervention in matters involving the --." The remainder of that sentence was blacked out, or redacted, because it contained information about a current investigation. Five times throughout the e-mail, information was redacted. Sometimes entire sentences were blacked out. The last redaction read, "Until we work something out, [redacted] has been advised not to engage in any further discussions with your office." (See sidebar for full text.)

At the end of the e-mail Meyers wrote: "By the way, I am e-mailing you from a friend's computer and if you wish to respond, call me in the office on Monday or send an e-mail to my office computer."

Then, at 4:14 p.m., Meyers hit the "send" button. Oops.... In his haste to launch his scolding message, Meyers evidently sent it to the wrong address.

At 4:23 p.m. he tried again, adding a nonchalant comment: "Chris, Please read the following e-mail. I didn't have your correct e-mail address when I initially sent this to you."

Mazzella didn't reply, which may be why, on Monday morning at 9:07 a.m., Meyers unleashed a scathing e-mail message from his office computer. "Regarding the e-mail I sent you on Friday, I am willing to concede that it's a debatable point as to whether the Ethics Commission can order the OIG to stop conducting an investigation where the Ethics Commission has primary jurisdiction," Meyers opened cautiously.

Then he unloaded: "We can, however, advise county departments to alert us whenever your öspecial agents' make Public Records requests.... As your agency refuses to provide our enforcement unit the courtesy of such notification, this is the only way we can assure that [sic] have knowledge of your involvement in matters of interest to the Ethics Commission." Meyers went on to inform Mazzella that at the upcoming meeting he would "circulate a policy memorandum" establishing new rules governing the OIG's investigative procedures. "Obviously, you will be able to give input," Meyers allowed, "but I hope you can keep things civil and professional, unlike the way you handled the Rosenthal letter to you."

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