City of Tallahassee tweet congratulating Andrew Gillum
not violation of city ethics code
As published by the Tallahassee Democrat (09/19/2018)
After investigation and more than 2 hours of deliberation behind closed doors,
commission says tweet was appropriate
A primary night tweet by the city of Tallahassee congratulating Mayor Andrew Gillum for winning the Democratic gubernatorial nomination does not violate the city's ethics code, the independent ethics board ruled.
After more than two hours of deliberating behind closed doors in executive session, the ethics board dismissed a complaint by a conservative watchdog group after finding that no ethical violations were committed by city officials, the mayor, or his staff.
"This is the first time we've had a complaint that fell within our jurisdiction," Board Chairman Richard Herring said after the meeting broke, noting that the City Commission gave the board the authority to investigate misuse of office in January.
The Aug. 31 complaint was brought by the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust. The Washington D.C.-based conservative watchdog group asked the board to investigate the "apparent abuse of official authority and misuse of city property for political purposes" by the mayor, his staff and other municipal employees.
Specifically, the group claimed a tweet posted at 9:28 p.m. on the city's official Twitter account congratulating Gillum was an abuse of authority and an endorsement of a political candidate.
"City of Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum has won the Democratic nominee for governor, according to the AP. Congratulations!" the tweet said. It included a photo of Gillum and his wife, with the caption, "Andrew Gillum and the Office of the Mayor."
The complaint also referred to an earlier ethics complaint about using $5,000 in city funds to buy software used to send emails highlighting a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton when she was running for president. The ethics board declined to investigate on its own initiative. A grand jury determined Gillum didn't know the software was being used for campaign purposes but that his staff knew.
The independent ethics officer and board first discussed whether the complaint was legally sufficient to move forward. After much deliberation, the board voted 5-1 that it was legally sufficient to proceed against the mayor because he and his staff were clearly identified in the complaint, Herring said.
A finding of legal sufficiency doesn't indicate wrongdoing or guilt, only that the complaint meets the legal requirements to launch an investigation of the allegations, he said.
The next step was to launch a fact-finding investigation, which was reviewed by an independent attorney, John Reid, who acted as a prosecutor. "The role of the advocate is to determine probable cause based on the fact finding," Herring said.
Reid concluded the facts of the case wouldn't sustain a probable cause finding that Gillum, his city staff or campaign staff violated the ethics code. The investigation found that the mayor, his staff and campaign staff didn't authorize or even know about the tweet and Reid recommended the complaint be dismissed.
As to the allegations that city staff knowingly or corruptly used city property to benefit Gillum's campaign, the board voted unanimously that the complaint was not legally sufficient.
"The complaint was so vague that we would have to read so much into it to find there was an ethical complaint," Herring said. "We were having to write the complaint ourselves."
The ethics board can only investigate misuse complaints against the elected and appointed officials at City Hall, he said.
"City staff regularly tweets the accomplishments of the mayor and commissioners," Herring said. "It promotes the city and it's news that was attributed to the Associated Press."
Just to be on the safe side, the board voted that there was no probable cause that Interim City Manager Reese Goad violated city ethics code, either. Goad oversees the communications department and approved the tweet that was sent out.
The ethics board has been criticized for not moving swiftly enough, taking three to four months to mull over a complaint, Herring said.
Also, time was of the essence in this particular case, he said. A complaint or referral cannot be filed or the intention of filing be disclosed against a candidate within 30 days immediately before the election date.
"I wanted to go as far through this process as we can," Herring said. "Sooner or later we are going to have a complaint where the alleged behavior is ongoing. This was a test run where we ironed some things out that need addressing."
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