As a member of the Homestead City Council, and then later as mayor, Steve Shiver accepted three all-expense-paid trips from the Community Bank of Florida. Despite the apparent conflict created by the fact that Community Bank regularly does business with the city, Shiver last week defended the excursions. "I took a couple of trips with the bank," he said matter-of-factly. "I don't feel there is anything improper with that."
The latest revelations regarding Shiver's relationship with Community Bank follow allegations by Homestead's former finance director that Shiver steered business to the bank while he was mayor. Robert Nachlinger, the former finance director, said that in 1998, Shiver helped derail a plan to remove the city's accounts from Community Bank and two other institutions and place them in one centralized account at Barnett Bank.
The consolidation of banking services would have saved the city money and afforded administrators greater control over the accounts. Homestead officials had asked all local banks to participate in a "request for proposals," known as an RFP. Based on their submissions, Nachlinger recommended using Barnett, which guaranteed the lowest fees and the highest return on deposits. On September 1, 1998, the Homestead City Council met to decide whether to accept the results of the RFP and Nachlinger's recommendation.
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A review of the audiotape of the meeting shows that, after calling the proceedings to order, Mayor Shiver made an announcement: "It was recently -- just this minute -- brought to my attention that my ownership of stock in Community Bank precludes me from discussing this issue at all." At the time Shiver would only describe as "minuscule" the amount of stock he owned in the bank.
Although he did not mention it then, Shiver, who was appointed Miami-Dade County Manager this past January, was more than a stockholder. Until last year he served on the bank's executive advisory council. (Last week I quoted Nachlinger as saying Shiver served on the bank's board of directors. That was incorrect. He sat on the advisory council.)
Last week Shiver recalled that he was appointed to the advisory council sometime after being elected to the Homestead City Council in 1993, though he could not remember the exact date. As a member of the advisory council, he was paid $50 for every bank meeting he attended. In addition members of the advisory council participated in special contests, organized by the bank, in which prizes were awarded for bringing business to the institution. These prizes included all-expense-paid trips. Shiver acknowledged last week that he won three junkets -- one to Key West; one to Biloxi, Mississippi; and another to Asheville, North Carolina. Again he could not recall the dates of the trips.
Shiver has never reported his advisory-council position on his financial-disclosure forms. On his 1996 disclosure form, he did report owning stock in Community Bank, but his subsequent filings for 1997, 1998, and 1999 make no mention of it, even though he held stock in the bank through all those years. Nor did he ever list any of the excursions as gifts. "They're not gifts," he contended.
Robert Epling, president and chief executive officer of Community Bank, said the trips included "educational opportunities" as well as "entertainment opportunities." They were more like retreats in which the bank would provide guest speakers to talk about a variety of subjects, from urban planning to economics.
According to Epling, Shiver's position as a councilman and then as mayor played no role in his being appointed to the advisory council, and it certainly wasn't a factor in awarding him the trips. "Steve was a hard worker," he reported.
Epling said banks regularly use advisory councils to help them serve the community. "The main function of the group," he explained, "is to be the eyes and ears in this community and to give us insight."
No one is suggesting that the debate over Homestead's banking services led to the city's financial collapse. But Shiver's connections to Community Bank and his actions during that September 1, 1998, meeting are emblematic of the broader problem of political influence affecting the city's financial affairs. More alarming, they present further evidence of Shiver's inability to discern right from wrong, and his proclivity to blame others for his own misconduct.
The laws regarding public officials and conflicts of interest are contained in both Florida statutes and the code of Miami-Dade County. The county code, which applies not only to county government but to all municipal governments, is far stricter and supersedes the more liberal Florida statutes.
According to county code, once a conflict has been established, the public official is not allowed to vote on the item in question "or participate in any way." The code even goes so far as to say that the official with the conflict "shall absent himself or herself from the [council] meeting during the discussion of the subject item...." Punishment for violating these rules ranges from a public censure and fine, to a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail.
During the September 1, 1998, meeting, Shiver acknowledged he had a conflict and admitted he'd spoken to several people about the RFP for municipal banking services. "At no time was my conversation slanted toward any one of the respondents to the RFP," he told his colleagues. "Again I want to point out that my minuscule share and my minuscule position in Community Bank really would have no bearing whatsoever on my financial worth of any magnitude."
Shiver, in spite of the conflict, decided it was all right for him to remain in the council chambers and act as chairman of the meeting. "I will stay in the discussion to monitor the discussion according to parliamentary procedure," he declared from the dais. "But I will not be able to discuss [the item]."
As chairman of the council meeting, Shiver maintained the power to determine who would speak, who would be recognized to make motions, and which motions would be allowed -- all of which would seem to constitute participation. But the tape recording of the meeting reveals that Shiver went well beyond these duties and actively participated in the debate.
Each of the banks that stood to lose city business made presentations opposing the RFP. The most stinging attacks, however, came from Robert Epling, who seemed personally offended that the city would consider pulling out of his bank. He savaged Nachlinger as being untrustworthy and unprofessional. (Today Nachlinger says he tried to respond to Epling, but Shiver motioned for him to remain in his seat.)
The tape also makes clear that, in light of the uproar from the other banks, the entire city council opposed Nachlinger's plan. A motion was made to reject the RFP. As tension grew, Councilman Roscoe Warren chided Shiver for not allowing the council's committee system to deal with the issue sooner.
"I am not going to say it was a communication breakdown from the council," Shiver responded. "What I will say is that I am very, very upset with the comments that I heard here today and representing that we are not doing our job. The City of Homestead owes a debt of gratitude to the three institutions sitting in this room. And quite frankly I'm very upset that due to a technicality pointed out by our attorneys tonight that I can't debate this issue. That really frustrates me. In years past that has never been pointed out. Enough said about that."
Shiver, though, kept right on going, repeating as statements of fact many of the allegations made by Epling against Nachlinger. "But returning your phone calls, keeping constant communication, telling one person something and telling somebody something else," he huffed, "this city will have no part of it. I personally will have no part of it. And that frustrates me that we are constantly hearing those types of comments coming back from business leaders in this community. To be quite honest with you, I echo what [Councilman Steve] Bateman said. I wasn't fully aware of [the banking issue] until it was ready to go to council. And that is too late."
Finally another council member interrupted Shiver to call the question.
"Yes, sir," Shiver said. "So the motion on the floor is a rejection of the RFP."
The motion passed unanimously, with Shiver abstaining. A council member then made a second motion to leave the city's banking services with Community Bank and the other institutions for another year. The representative from Barnett Bank stood up and accused the council of creating a system of collusion whereby the other banks were being guaranteed a piece of the city's business regardless of what they charged. Why should Barnett try to save the city money or offer a higher return on deposits, he asked, if Barnett's competitors don't have to?
Shiver cut off the Barnett official. "There is a motion on the floor right now," he snapped. "I think this is an issue that needs to be dealt with technically by our staff in a discussion with the three institutions we already work with." Shiver paused for a moment and asked the city attorney: "Can I talk like that?"
Having been scolded by Shiver earlier in the meeting, the city attorney backed down. "You can talk like -- "
Before the attorney could finish his thought, Shiver testily said, "Okay, fine." He then continued speaking in favor of the motion. "I think that these banks that are in the room right now have done very well by us for over the last 100 years," he argued. "And in that case we are not saying that an exclusive right or an exclusive relationship is the best business decision on the surface. However, if you look at a holistic approach, we are a business, but we are also in the business of providing jobs, which all of these banks do. We are also in the business of providing community support, which all of these institutions do. So there are multiple facets of this decision which aren't strictly black and white. They're intangible. You can't qualify them sometimes."
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The second motion passed unanimously, with Shiver once again abstaining. By the time the meeting was finished, Shiver had spoken more than any other member of the city council.
Last week Shiver told me he didn't recall the specifics of that 1998 city council meeting. Obviously, he said, since the vote was unanimous, his actions were irrelevant. "I wish I had that kind of control and power," he joked. Had he been doing something wrong, he added, the city attorney would have stopped him. "I did what the attorney asked me to do," Shiver claimed.
The law firm of Weiss Serota Helfman Pastoriza & Guedes acts as the city attorney for Homestead. Richard Weiss was out of town last week and could not be reached for comment.