Ethics board scolds city manager over accepting wedding reception discount
Tallahassee's independent ethics board is chastising City Manager Rick Fernandez for accepting a $5,000 discount from the city-backed Edison restaurant for his daughter's wedding reception.
"You, as City Manager, hold the most prominent appointed position within the City government. The ethical climate within an organization is established by the tone at the top," a letter drafted by board chairman Richard Herring said.
"We believe that credible information shows a degree of overlap between your government responsibilities and your private interests. This represents, at a minimum, an unacceptable level of poor judgment. The City deserves better."
The draft letter to Fernandez was released Thursday as part of the ethics board's agenda package for next Tuesday. Once approved by the board, with any changes, it will go to Fernandez with copies to the mayor and commission.
Fernandez is on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of a state ethics investigation into the wedding banquet discount and other issues.
In a separate cover letter to Mayor Andrew Gillum and the City Commission, Herring said the ethics board held one executive session and three public hearings to discuss the banquet issue, which was raised in an anonymous ethics complaint.
That complaint from June accused Fernandez of using his position to get a 25 percent discount and in return reward the Edison's catering manager, Eddie Kring, with a city job.
Fernandez didn't negotiate or execute the contract, but he paid the nearly $15,000 bill.
In the letter to Fernandez, Herring said "since you paid the bill, you ultimately received the benefit of discounted services from a restaurant owned in part by city lobbyists."
The Edison was built by Adam Corey, who has lobbied the city on behalf of his clients and received $2.1 million in local tax money to build the restaurant at the city’s downtown Cascades Park.
Corey also is a person of interest in an FBI investigation into the business dealings of the Tallahassee Community Redevelopment Agency, which contributed $800,000 to the construction of the restaurant.
The ethics board decided it lacked jurisdiction to address the allegation "because the complaint failed to state a legally sufficient claim of a violation of the city's ethics code."
It voted to refer the case to the State Commission on Ethics in August but was informed that it couldn’t without someone filing a sworn complaint.
The board discussed the matter in open session in September and ordered its ethics officer to further investigate the allegations.
At the same time, Erwin Jackson filed a complaint with the Florida Commission on Ethics based on the same allegations. In addition, he claimed Fernandez accepted expensive Florida State football tickets from a lobbyist with Corey's lobbying firm.
Text messages obtained by the Tallahassee Democrat, which city officials first said didn't exist and later said were deleted by Fernandez, show he requested and received four tickets from the lobbyist to the North Carolina State game last year. The box office seats cost about $500 each.
When the board reconvened in October to discuss the issue again, it acknowledged that "citizens who voted to establish the Board wanted it to serve as a conscience and a watchdog for the public."
Even though the board lacks jurisdiction over legally insufficient allegations, Herring said, it felt "compelled to offer a candid assessment of the situation and make recommendations that you, and anyone else in a City leadership position, should apply."
Part of the city's ethics code gives the board the authority to "advise city elected officials, appointed officials, management, staff, and vendors on ethical matters," Herring said.
As the top appointed official, Fernandez is responsible for ensuring his actions are above reproach and beyond an appearance of impropriety, Herring said. He also required him to take greater care separating his "public position from his personal life."
"Any discounts received by public officials should be equivalent to discounts available to everyone else similarly situated," Herring wrote. "You simply should not accept any special benefit. Citizens believe that the appearance or perception of impropriety is often as bad as impropriety itself. Situations like this erode public trust in government."
Contact Schweers at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeffschweers.