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Ethics and E-mails

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

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.)

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."

What could Meyers have been thinking?

Overcome with the urge to give the inspector general a piece of his mind, and unable to wait until Monday, he uses his friend's computer and e-mail account, neither of which are secure from prying eyes. In his message to Mazzella he discusses an ongoing investigation, a clear breach of security. All such messages are, of course, public records subject to disclosure under Florida law.

As if all that weren't bad enough, Meyers seems to have sent the e-mail to the wrong address. Who knows where it ended up. I guarantee you that had an OIG employee committed such gaffes, he'd be looking for a new job. Mazzella couldn't have scripted a better defense of his uncompromising policies.

Robert Meyers is a thoughtful man who takes his job seriously. But in his efforts to rein in the Office of the Inspector General, he started a fight he likely will not win. The monumentally poor judgment he exhibited in his conduct on July 30 is evidence it is also a fight he should not win.

He should have hit the "delete" key, taken a deep breath, and waited until Monday. One thing's certain: He really needed this vacation.

The Meyers E-mails

Friday, July 30, 2004, 4:26 p.m.

Chris, Please read the following e-mail. I didn't have your correct e-mail when I initially sent this to you.

Robert Meyers,

Friday, July 30, 2004, 4:14 p.m.

Subject: FW: Investigations

Dear Chris,

I understand that from discussions I have had with Kerry Rosenthal that your office, through Patra Liu, will be reporting to the Chairman from time-to-time. 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.

Our offices were created in part to complement [sic] another and, at times, work together and share resources. 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. The perfect example was your investigation of John Cosgrove, where your office reported that he had "conflicts of interest," which ultimately resulted in his resignation. Assuming for the sake of argument that your office has concurrent jurisdiction over the county's conflict of interest and Code of Ethics Ordinance with the Ethics Commission, why not notify us that you are investigating him before providing the County Manager with a draft report? More importantly, what if Mr. Cosgrove had asked the Ethics Commission for an opinion regarding his conduct and he had been issued an opinion? You must realize that you place the OIG and the COE in a difficult predicament when you do not advise us of your activities when it involves one of the ordinances under the COE's jurisdiction.

The more recent example happened today and it involves your intervention in matters involving the [redacted to end of sentence]. The Ethics Commission has the authority in the ordinance to audit, investigate, give opinions and enforce its provisions. If we detect any criminal wrongdoing, it [sic] our responsibility to turn it over to the State Attorney's Office. As far as determining [redacted to] indeed qualified. We have a process in place for handling these matters and there is no reason for your office to intervene. If we spot something that is improper or potentially criminal, we will contact the appropriate agencies. If you are of the opinion that it is absolutely essential to investigate [redacted to] then, at a minimum, you must confer with the [sic] us before proceeding. It may turn out that we are in the middle of our own investigation and your work might be redundant. This is exactly the reason why cooperation is essential [redacted to end of sentence]. Until we work something out, [redacted] has been advised not to engage in any further discussions with your office.

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.

Robert

Monday, August 02, 2004, 9:07 a.m.

Subject: Investigation

Chris,

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. We can, however, advise county departments to alert us whenever your "special agents" make Public Records requests of matters within the purview of the Ethics Commission. 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. Finally, at the August 18th meeting of the Ethics Commission, I will circulate a policy memorandum to the Ethics Commission that establishes certain ground rules when your agency conducts investigators [sic] of [sic] matters within the exclusive or primary jurisdiction of the COE. Obviously, you will be able to give input, but I hope you can keep things civil and professional, unlike the way you handled the Rosenthal letter to you.

Thank you,

Robert


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