Letters from the Issue of August12-18, 2002

Christopher Mazzella: Vigilante Unbound

This inspector general has crossed the line: Tristram Korten would like his readers to believe that Christopher Mazzella, the crime-fighting Miami-Dade County inspector general, is about to be fired by his boss, Kerry Rosenthal, chairman of the county's Commission on Ethics and Public Trust, aided and abetted by lawyer Robert Meyers, the executive director of the commission ("Inspector Imperiled," July 29). Only when readers get to the ninth paragraph does Korten reveal that he worked for the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) for about a year. It is apparent he absorbed all the prejudices of his former boss, Mr. Mazzella, to whom the piece is dedicated. In any case, Korten says it's his column and he has the right to express his opinions. So there!

Wrong. The ethics commission is a vital institution in protecting the public against government employees who violate the county's code of ethics. The First Amendment does not authorize Korten to do a kind of "soft" libel on the leadership of the commission. He is not, as you will see in a moment, today's Lincoln Steffens.

1. Korten, like any good novelist, immediately goes to motivation. Why do Rosenthal and Meyers want to "get" Mazzella, a hard-charging, case-winning, retired FBI agent?

Korten's answer: Rosenthal, a real estate attorney (note: He's not a crime-fighting, gun-toting prosecutor), and his co-conspirator and legal adviser Meyers resent, yes, resent, Mazzella's success! The OIG is doing too good a job catching people stealing public money and thus, in capturing the public spotlight, he leaves them in the dark. There you have it: envy and revenge. Rosenthal and Meyers just didn't get invited to the dance. Ugly, childish wallflowers.

Korten prints a couple of sentences from Rosenthal's letter to Mazzella wherein Rosenthal expresses his concern about Mazzella's alleged failure to adhere to his proper function under the county commission's charter. With only small snippets of the letter available to readers, it appears Rosenthal feared that Mazzella, the FBI war horse, was turning his office into an unsupervised private investigatory agency beholden to no one, and doing it under the guise of political independence. That sounds a little more serious than envy and revenge.

2. Korten carefully notes the parameters of the OIG's independence: He is insulated from pressures coming from such political entities as the county commission, the county mayor, and the county manager. But there is one additional aspect of Mazzella's independence that needs to be explicated: the OIG's administrative obligations to the ethics commission, its chairman, and its executive director. Korten just doesn't want to go there, leaving the impression that Mazzella is responsible to no one. Korten's failure of analytic nerve means something crucial is missing: Where are the checks and balances so central to democratic theory and practice?

3. But Korten senses that his failure to spell out the legal limits of the OIG's power opens the door to the specter of vigilantism. To Rosenthal's expressed concern that the OIG is responsible to no one, Korten, carefully examining various punctuation marks and scattered phrases in the ordinance creating the ethics commission, puts on his judge's wig and declares, "It's a matter of interpretation." Whose interpretation? Judge Korten comes right out and says it: Mazzella's.

4. Korten unwittingly provides some interesting facts that tend to substantiate Rosenthal's fears that Mazzella is seeking total independence of any controls, the key benchmark of the vigilante:

(a) When Mazzella was asked who he is accountable to, he mentions the county's budget office and the taxpayers of Miami-Dade County, carefully selecting bodies that are remote or ephemeral. He fails to go straight to the proper source of his authority and his paycheck: the county ethics commission. Korten's partisan brain lets this incriminating statement pass without comment.

(b) Korten describes Mazzella's attempt to gain total autonomy over his budget but draws no inferences from that. Of course, anyone who knows even a little bit about business and governmental organizations knows that freedom to control one's budget is a prerequisite for administrative independence. The best Korten can do to justify the OIG's power grab is to declare that other claimants on the ethics commission's budget were just wasting money anyway.

(c) When Korten describes how Mazzella literally fortified his office space by locking out everyone but his own personal staff, he is forced to peddle a truly incredible (i.e., not credible) explanation, one obviously formulated by Mazzella: His specially screened staff has access to super-secret police databases and must keep the doors locked. Super-secret criminal databases should be protected, but as everyone knows, you don't need to prop a chair under the door handle and lay a cocked .45 on your keyboard to be secure. Hey, Tristram! All you need is a sufficiently long password.

Conclusions: I'll take Korten's word for it that the OIG's office has been effective in helping to build about 100 solid legal cases in six years against legally rotten government employees. However, it does not follow as a corollary that the OIG knows better than anyone else where to look for smoking guns. One can always build up a pretty good batting average by taking easy cases: stupid thieves who leave a paper trail a mile wide. The fact that so few of Mazzella's cases have been contested may say more about the lack of sophistication of his targets than the irrefutable character of the evidence collected by the OIG.

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