Ethics Watchdog Wilcox says Tallahassee is at or near the top in public corruption across the state.
“The extent of corruption and blatant pay-to-play that has been exposed during the federal trial is staggering’
OurTallahassee.com joined longtime ethics watchdog Ben Wilcox in his Myers Park home for this interview. Wilcox is the Research Director and co-founder of Integrity Florida, a non-profit, non-partisan government watchdog organization whose mission is to promote integrity in government and expose public corruption.
OT: There are people out there who seem to clutch their pearls when people say things like ‘corruption’. Inevitably the conversation comes up that not all corruption is illegal, and that bribery is a very extreme and illegal form of corruption. With that in mind, in its simplest form, what is a good working definition of corruption to you?
WILCOX: On Integrity Florida’s website, we define public corruption as “The abuse of entrusted power for private gain.” It is correct to say that not all corruption is illegal. In fact, I’m more concerned about systemic “legal” corruption than I am about the relatively few Scott Maddox’s of the world who actually get caught doing something illegal. If this trial has shown us anything, it is that systemic “legal” corruption permeates how the public’s business gets done in Tallahassee.
OT: Where do you think Tallahassee scores on public corruption across the state?
WILCOX: Obviously, Tallahassee would be at or near the top. We’re not the only Florida city or town that has had public officials end up in jail, but the extent of corruption and blatant pay-to-play that has been exposed during the federal trial is staggering.
In addition to the current federal trial, Tallahassee has seen its former Mayor and City Manager fined by the Florida Commission on Ethics for violating state ethics laws. In both cases, the violations involved the taking of illegal gifts from lobbyists. Taken as a whole, it’s a black eye for the City of Tallahassee’s reputation that will take years to recover from.
OT: What is the biggest change needed at our local level to have a more citizen-led government?
WILCOX: We’ve got to root out the culture of corruption in local government that makes for business as usual in Tallahassee. Citizens have to believe that if they participate in government, government will listen to them and be responsive. Citizens will become cynical and not participate in government if they believe that government decisions are being made based on which political consultant raised the campaign cash or which lobbyist was hired. Unfortunately, that’s exactly the picture of government in Tallahassee that has been portrayed in the federal trial of J.T. Burnette.
OUR TALLAHASSEE: We’ve heard a lot of talk about the ethics reform since the FBI investigation became public in 2017, but there have also been a lot of people, yourself included that think that the ethics ordinance passed in 2019 hasn’t been nearly far enough? Why is that?
WILCOX: Ethics reform is not a one-and-done kind of thing. Raising ethical standards for government requires constant vigilance and hard work. The ethics ordinance adopted by the city in 2019 was a great first step. The ordinance was recommended by the City’s independent Ethics Board and it was finally adopted by the City Commission almost a year after it was initially recommended. It was a perfect example of the Ethics Board fulfilling its mission as spelled out in the 2014 charter amendment that passed by 67% of city voters.
Now the Ethics Board is recommending the City adopt three new ordinances that address the regulation of lobbyists. One ordinance would revise the definition of lobbyist to include people who claim to be “consultants” but are clearly acting as lobbyists. The ordinances would also expand the Ethics Board’s jurisdiction so it could investigate complaints of unregistered lobbying. The ordinances represent another example of the Ethics Board doing its job to raise the ethical bar for city government. So far, the City Commission has shown little interest in considering these recommended lobby ordinances. Maybe the shame brought about by the federal trial will inspire some urgency and action from city hall. One can only hope.
2021- Wilcox outside his home in Myers Park. A Tallahassee native, on Old Fort Drive, Wilcox grew up in a house across the street. His fireplace is adorned by the Old Capitols’ Senate Chamber Doors.
OT: Is there a relationship between the length of office and corruption to you?
WILCOX: There can be and one only needs to look at Scott Maddox who was first elected to the City Commission in 1993. He served several terms as mayor and was on and off the City Commission for 25 years until 2018 when he was indicted. At one point when he was out of office, Maddox set up a consulting firm called Governance. Governance became the vehicle for bribes to Maddox in exchange for votes when Maddox returned to the City Commission in 2012. It could be argued that the 25 years that Scott Maddox was in and out of office allowed him to develop his corrupt scheme to put personal gain before public service. That said, I am not a supporter of term limits. Experience in government can be beneficial and certainly is not a prerequisite for corrupt behavior by public officials.
OT: Should ethics watchdogs give up at this point on the City of Tallahassee ethics board? Could it be fixed by an additional ballot amendment? How would you do it differently if you were to do it all over again?
WILCOX: Citizens of Tallahassee and ethics watchdogs should not give up on the Independent Ethics Board. Rather they should engage with the Board and support its work. The Ethics Board remains the only “independent” body with oversight of city government. The city continues to try to minimize public awareness of the Ethics Board and the Ethics Office by moving the Office out of City Hall and no longer broadcasting Ethics Board meetings on its television channel WCOT.
In addition to looking into complaints alleging ethical violations, the Board recommended a rewrite of the City’s ethics code which gave Tallahassee some of the strongest local ethics laws in the state. The Board has now recommended three new ordinances designed to strengthen regulation and enforcement of lobbying. The Board continues to look at other policy improvements to raise the ethical bar for city government.
The only thing I would do differently from the anti-corruption charter amendment that was written and adopted by voters in 2014 would be to give the Ethics Board the ability to grant whistleblower protection to people, especially city employees, who have inside knowledge of ethics violations. Currently the Board receives a high number of anonymous complaints, mainly because city employees fear retaliation if they put their name on a complaint. Giving the Ethics Board the ability to grant whistleblower protection would reduce the number of anonymous complaints and make employees more comfortable reporting corruption.
OT: What should the community be looking at as we watch the FBI public corruption trial? Is there any good that can come of it at the end?
WILCOX: The FBI public corruption trial has pulled back the veil and shown how business really gets done in Tallahassee. It is likely that at least two and potentially three people (depending on the outcome of the Burnette trial) will go to jail. This trial has shown us that there were a lot of other people (city staff, lobbyists, local businessmen and woman and political consultants) who turned a blind eye or otherwise enabled Scott Maddox, Paige Carter-Smith, and J.T. Burnette.
There will be a concerted effort by the powers-that-be in the City of Tallahassee to move past the ugliness that has been exposed in the Burnette trial and get back to business as usual. We’ve already seen it in the local Chamber of Commerce’s response to a thoughtful opinion piece by City Commissioner Jeremy Matlow.
Commissioner Matlow questioned whether the city and the business community have done enough to ensure that we don’t see this kind of corruption again in Tallahassee. He pointed out that a number of people who were involved in Maddox’s dealings are still involved with city government. What was the Chamber’s response? The Chamber voted to “censure” Commissioner Matlow, apparently for having the gall to suggest that more work needs to be done to rid the city of corruption than just sending three people to jail.
Nothing good will come of the public corruption trial unless we honestly recognize what happened in Tallahassee and address the systemic culture of corruption in city government that allowed it to happen.
OT: There’s been a lot of discussion about Blueprint, as well as some of the senior-level executives at the City of Tallahassee in the past couple of years. What can be done to move organizations that seem to be impenetrable to change like those?
WILCOX: I spoke earlier about systemic “legal” corruption as opposed to criminal, illegal corruption. Systemic legal corruption is much harder to change because by its nature it becomes ingrained into the way government business gets done and over time people come to accept it as the norm. I think city government suffers from this kind of systemic corruption.
There is a recent Tallahassee Democrat report by Karl Etters titled, “Blueprint is Yours”: Scott Maddox texts reveal his role as the man who would be kingmaker. The report includes text messages from Scott Maddox that show how he worked behind the scenes to get Paige Carter-Smith hired as head of the Downtown Improvement Authority and his friend Ben Pingree hired as the administrator who oversees the Blueprint sales tax program.
Later in the report, Maddox brags that he was responsible for the hiring of City Manager Rick Fernandez and then three years later Reese Goad as City Manager after Fernandez stepped down amid an ethics scandal. Both men were in-house hires, each serving in lower levels of city government before being elevated to City Manager. From my years of observing city government, I think this incestuous tendency to hire within rather than look for an outsider who is not beholden to the City Commission contributes to the systemic corruption and lack of change to business as usual at city hall. Sometimes fresh eyes see behaviors and practices that need to change, but other insiders just take them for granted.
OT: What don’t people know about the Ethics Charter Amendment in 2014?
WILCOX: As for a war story about getting the charter amendment passed in 2014, I would like people to know the extent to which the city fought our efforts to raise the ethical bar in Tallahassee government. The city used your tax dollars to pay for a legal challenge in circuit court trying to keep the charter amendment signed by more than 20,000 city residents off the ballot. Fortunately, the judge saw through the legal challenge and allowed the referendum to be on the ballot where it was eventually adopted.
The city then attempted to sabotage the independent Ethics Board by hiring its own Ethics Officer who was not independent and who reported to city staff. When the Ethics Board was eventually formed, the chair of the board, who was appointed by the city, rammed through the city’s choice for the Ethics Officer when the position should have been filled after a national search.
Because of the hard work of the Ethics Board over the past seven years and despite more recent attempts by the city to reduce public awareness of the Ethics Board and Office, we now join only a handful of local governments in Florida that have a well-functioning independent ethics watchdog for city government.
OT: What’s the best way people can help causes like yours?
WILCOX: Refuse to become cynical about government and get engaged. We need to remind our political leaders and public officials that they work for us and it’s our money they’re spending. We need more government watchdogs and more government reformers. We need to continually insist that local government operate with high ethical standards, including abiding by public records laws and public meetings laws. Finally, we need to support the work of the independent Ethics Board, including urging the Mayor and City Commission to adopt the three proposed lobby reform ordinances.