Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Some observations about the Commission on Ethics finding "probable cause" that Commissioner Cara Jennings violated financial disclosure requirements.

Regardless of where you stand in your support of Commissioner Cara Jennings, it is never appropriate to celebrate an apparent ethical violation by a public official.  Like it or not, Commissioner Jennings represents all of the residents in Lake Worth and is identified as a Commissioner in Lake Worth on the press release issued by the Commission on Ethics.  Many who read this press release will not have the benefit of knowing the extenuating circumstances uttered by Commissioner Jennings in her statement at last night's City Commission meeting.  One wonders when the Ministry of Information, aka the Palm Beach Post, will pick up on the finding of probable cause.  Do not look for it in a banner headline above the fold.

Let's take a step back and look at some of the underlying circumstances here.  I think we all can agree that one of biggest investments we will have in our lives are our houses and the land on which they are built.  As such, most people have to borrow money over a long period of time in order to keep their property, pay taxes and afford their living expenses.  It is probably the largest loan, or loans, that anyone will have in a lifetime.  So, where the public trust is involved, it is important that an elected official disclose the basic information about from where that money comes.  In this case, it was a loan that came through the Lake Worth Community Development Corporation.  One of Commissioner Jennings' mates on the the Commission is project manager for that organization.  There is nothing "untoward" about that fact, but it is a material fact that needs to be disclosed.

The original amount of that loan was $15,000.  By way of comparison, the maximum campaign contribution allowed per individual or per entity in the state of Florida is $500.  By order of magnitude, the original loan amount is 30 times as large as the maximum allowed campaign contribution.  Commissioner Jennings likes to point out political campaign contributions and encourages their disclosure during voting if someone who contributed to any sitting City Commissioners' or Mayor's campaign will benefit from the action.  A former Commissioner was reported to the Florida Elections Commission, not the Commission on Ethics, for not including the proper address for one or more, not sure, $500 contributions.  She was levied a fine and the matter was resolved.  Certain supporters of Commissioner Jennings at last night's City Commission meeting were some of the first to proclaim the violation by this former Commissioner in accepting this campaign contribution as one of the more severe signs of corruption in our City.  They were eager to excuse this latest news as an unintentional, non-material gaff.

Yes, the form is complicated and vague.  It is trying to protect the public by showing who is owed what by whom and how much, identify business relationships, etc., while still providing for some degree of privacy for the public official who fills out the form.  That's a tough balancing act and it leads to some gray areas on the form.  There are instructions and they are in plain English.  If you read them, you will be able to get a basic understanding on how and what information is needed on the form.

This is where I have a hard time believing that Commissioner Jennings, who is known for and prides herself on reading everything that comes across the Commission's dais thoroughly, had trouble understanding what was required to disclose.  She is also known for what seem to be, at times, never-ending questions - some qualifying as very insightful.  So claiming a "mistake on a form?" - that part just doesn't make sense to me.

To her benefit, her openness, once this came to light and her actions to correct the reporting after the fact, is commendable.  But, at the end of the day, it was still a violation - thus we have the decision of the Ethics Commission.