Introduction to Ethics

On Friday, February 15, Steve Shiver will attend a course on ethics. (Insert your own joke here. Let me get you started with a couple of easy ones: "Hey, Martha, get the skates. Looks like Hell is about to freeze over!" or "Steve Shiver taking a class in ethics? What's next, hookers going to school to restore their virginity?")

Shiver should have taken this class a year ago when he became county manager. Instead he blew it off. It was only after the Miami Herald published a front-page story last month noting Shiver's failure to undergo ethics training -- a requirement for all new county employees -- that he finally agreed to put in an appearance.

Shiver, however, isn't the only high-level county employee who has ducked the class. Tom David, the manager's chief of staff, never bothered taking it. Neither did David's assistant, Chris Hebert. Hebert, you'll recall, is the young man with no government experience Shiver hired into a top-salary county job. Hebert's only qualification, aside from a rap sheet and a suspended driver license, was that he and the county manager were buddies. David and Hebert also are scheduled to attend the February 15 class.

The learning experience is supposed to last about three hours, according to county officials, and is designed to introduce participants to the county's rules of ethical conduct. Among the various topics to be covered, one dominates in time and importance: What constitutes a conflict of interest? Shiver and the boys will be given examples of situations a typical county employee might face.

Let's face it, though. Shiver isn't your typical county employee. With that in mind, I've taken the liberty of creating a few scenarios that might be useful in class discussion. Maybe they'll spark lively debate and enhance the learning process.

Scenario No. 1: A local bank, which appears before your agency for business, invites you to join its executive advisory board and offers you an all-expenses-paid trip to the Florida Keys. Do you accept?

Okay, I admit that's kind of a trick question, because we already know the answer: You bet Shiver will accept.

As a member of the Homestead City Council and then again as the town's mayor, Shiver accepted not one but three expenses-paid trips to various resorts from Community Bank of Florida, even though the bank regularly did business with the city.

"I took a couple of trips with the bank," Shiver shrugged dismissively last year, defending the excursions. "I don't feel there is anything improper with that."

Robert Epling, chief executive officer of Community Bank, described the junkets as having dual purposes. They provided "educational opportunities" as well as "entertainment opportunities." Shiver never reported the free trips on his financial-disclosure forms, nor did he disclose his ownership of stock in the bank.

Last year Homestead's former finance director, Robert Nachlinger, accused Shiver of steering business to Community Bank. A review of the tapes of city council meetings bore out Nachlinger's charge. In 1998, the tapes showed, Shiver helped derail a plan to move the city's various accounts out of Community Bank and two other institutions and consolidate them into one account at what was then Barnett Bank. Consolidating the accounts would have saved the city money and allowed administrators greater control over city finances. Indeed when Homestead nearly went bankrupt last year, one of the problems cited by auditors was the existence of numerous city bank accounts.

Scenario No. 2: An old friend of yours, a convicted felon, is petitioning the governor for clemency. You want to help, so you turn to a lobbyist whose services are paid for by taxpayers. Conflict?

Tricked again! Yes, we already have the answer. Last year, when Shiver's pal William Chaney tried to secure executive clemency, Shiver, who was then mayor of Homestead, called the city's Tallahassee lobbyist, Bob Levy, and asked him to help. Despite Levy's efforts, Chaney, who was convicted in the mid-Eighties of conspiring to import hundreds of pounds of marijuana and who served eight months in federal prison, lost his clemency bid.

Shiver doesn't see anything wrong with what he did. In his mind he simply tried to help out a friend. If we're lucky, February's class will show him why he was wrong. Under the county code it was illegal, even as Homestead's mayor, "to use his official position to secure special privileges or exemptions for himself or others...."

Enlisting the aid of a well-known lobbyist (who just happened to have direct connections to the clemency board) would seem to constitute a special privilege not available to ordinary citizens. Besides, under the terms of his contract with Homestead, Levy was supposed to take direction only from the city manager, Curtis Ivy, Jr.