Accounts Payable

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.

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.

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede