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.

Levy says, and Ivy confirms, that he didn't discuss the Chaney clemency bid with the manager and that as far as he was concerned, he was merely doing a favor for Shiver.

But should Shiver have been soliciting or accepting favors from the city's lobbyist? At the time of Shiver's request, Levy knew the Homestead City Council would decide whether his contract should be renewed. By asking for a favor, Shiver placed Levy in an awkward position. How could he possibly say no?

Scenario No. 3: A selection committee reviews proposals by two companies competing for a county contract and overwhelmingly supports one proposal over the other. Do you:

a. forward that recommendation to the county commission for approval,

b. recommend the other firm but tell county commissioners about the selection committee's decision so they can make an informed choice, or

c. recommend the other firm and then try to slip it past commissioners when they aren't looking?

Want to guess which one Shiver picked? If you chose "c," you certainly know your manager. Last July Shiver rejected the nearly unanimous recommendation of an expert selection committee and instead handed a nine-million-dollar computer-software contract to a company that had hired a politically influential lobbyist. That lobbyist, Rodney Barreto, is one of Mayor Alex Penelas's biggest fundraisers. He also helped raise money for Shiver's various political races in Homestead and then helped Shiver win approval as county manager last year.

Shiver tried to hide the contract in a section of the county agenda rarely scrutinized by commissioners. Then when caught, he attempted to mislead commissioners into believing the selection committee had actually recommended his choice, which wasn't true.

Scenario No. 4: Your name is Robert Meyers and you are executive director of the county's Commission on Ethics and Public Trust. You'll be one of the instructors during February's ethics seminar for the county manager and his senior staff. Do you play it safe, stick to the script of the day's workshop, and allow the manager to slide through? Or do you use the opportunity to help Shiver -- possibly for the first time in his life -- understand the meaning of the word ethics by challenging (academically speaking) his past actions?

We'll have to wait for the answer to this one.

No matter what Meyers decides to do, chances are February's class won't have a lasting effect. Steve Shiver is simply incapable of allowing himself to alter his conduct or look at his actions in anything but the most favorable light. All he can do is make excuses for himself. He's incapable of accepting responsibility, which I suspect has been a lifelong problem.

In recent months I've invested a fair amount of time reading Shiver's e-mail messages -- and not just to document the spelling and grammatical errors. This manager has made himself more accessible than any of his predecessors. He encourages employees to e-mail him their concerns or questions, no matter how trivial. And he takes the time to answer each of them.

But he addresses the county's 28,000 employees as if he were some snake-oil salesman. On the surface it may seem as though he's trying to sell the idea of better government, but the real product is Steve Shiver. "I am really excited about 2002," he wrote in a message to employees at the beginning of the year. "We must be able to create a working environment that promotes enthusiasm, creativity, and the sense of being part of a true team. To do this, each one of us must commit to certain principles that we embrace every single day of the year."

Later he added, "I am very committed to Miami-Dade County, as are all of you. So day, night, or weekends my door is always open. Let's make this the year that Miami-Dade County Government becomes known as the most user-friendly, progressive government in America."

Shiver is doing this for two reasons. First and foremost he is playing to the vanity and insecurity of county employees for political advantage. He came to county hall a politician without a constituency. The commission was split on his appointment, and he knew the mayor could turn on him in a heartbeat -- just as Penelas did with the two previous managers, Armando Vidal and Merrett Stierheim. His only benefactors were a handful of lobbyists and a few greedy business people in South Miami-Dade. Now he is trying to build a following within county government, not to effect change but to bolster his own power.

The needy tone of his e-mail messages betrays another reason as well: Shiver is desperate for acceptance by strangers. In fact the more I read them, the more I feel sorry for him. Every time he sends out an e-mail, he receives a few hundred replies from county employees who thank him for taking the time to write and who tell him he's doing a great job. The fact that a couple of hundred replies represent only a small fraction of his workforce means nothing to Shiver. He gets to bathe in the joy of opening hundreds of e-mails telling him what a great guy he is. This isn't about good government. It's about an insecure man seeking approval and admiration.

"Thanks for the kind words," Shiver responded recently to one of the people who wrote him. "I am just surprised that those before me didn't see the importance of this type of communication. Have a great day!"

Despite the cheery esprit de corps, Shiver's words bear little relationship to his actions. He may preach to county employees that "our ethics and professionalism must always be the basis for our actions," but his deeds betray that creed. When the Herald in December wrote about Shiver's failure to attend the mandatory ethics class, the manager used county employees for cover, simultaneously courting their favor and hiding among them. "I do think there is a stigma with the constant association of employees with a lack of ethics," he declared. "I truly believe there's a fundamental good in people, that there is a basic code of what's right and what's wrong. I'm focusing on the 99 percent of the employees that are working hard and not focusing on the 1 percent that give us a bad name."

Shiver will never understand that he's part of the 1 percent. Let's just hope the other 99 percent don't allow themselves to be fooled by the pretender in their midst.

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede