BOYNTON BEACH, Fla. -- City Hall buzzed with gossip and officials issued harsh rhetoric Tuesday over reports that a commissioner sent naked pictures to her first cousin and that she felt pressure to vote differently for fear they would surface.
The mayor fired off a statement all but asking Commissioner Marlene Ross to resign over the scandal, which he said "scars our city."
"As elected officials, we are held to an even higher standard of behavior, and when standards are compromised, we must question the ability of the individual to be effective as a leader," Mayor Woodrow Hay said. "Our city deserves better. I would hope that any elected official would do the right thing for this great city and its citizens."
News of the photos and allegations of blackmail, first reported by The Palm Beach Post, spread quickly through the town. By Tuesday night's commission meeting, tensions peaked as Ross, refusing to resign, demanded instead that the mayor should leave office.
"Since you have been mayor, our city has been going straight backwards," she said.
The controversy stems from an investigation into alleged extortion by David Katz, a lobbyist and former city commissioner. Ross told Palm Beach County State Attorney's Office investigators she feared Katz had possession of the photos and would leak them if she didn't vote the way he wanted.
The State Attorney's Office closed out the investigation with a memo written Thursday.
"None of the scenarios described by Ms. Ross involved behavior that could be considered criminal extortion," Daniel Funk, assistant state attorney for the Public Integrity Unit, wrote in the memo.
Although the investigation found no evidence of extortion, it revealed the very information Ross hoped would never come to light: that she sent a Facebook message to her cousin, Rogelio Vera, containing nude photos of herself.
Ross, in taped interviews with investigators, described hesitance to engage in a romantic relationship with Vera, an ex-convict estranged from his wife.
"He started with the flirting," she said, according to The Post. "I said, 'Oh, c'mon. This is not right.' He's a first cousin. 'This is not right. You've got to stop.'"
Nonetheless, she allegedly sent the photos in late 2010 or early 2011, Detective Robert Flechaus reported in a State Attorney's Office memo. Vera showed his now ex-wife, Lillian Vera, who angrily phoned Ross to express her disapproval. But she told investigators she never possessed the photos.
Ross alleged that Katz wanted her to cast the deciding vote that would have appointed former Mayor Jerry Taylor to a vacant commission seat. Though she never voted to appoint Taylor, she said she felt threatened, the Post reported.
On Tuesday, Katz decried the allegations and called Ross a liar.
"If you look up the word 'Pinocchio' in the dictionary, you're going to see a picture of the commissioner from District 4," he said. "I was never called, contacted or asked to talk to [investigators] because there was nothing to what she said."
But Ross, in an interview with the Sun Sentinel, said the only reason prosecutors could not open charges against Katz is because she and her lawyer decided not to cooperate with the investigation. The State Attorney's Office proposed wiring her during a conversation with Katz, but, scared, she refused.
"I am a victim of extortion," Ross said.
She also said "nobody has pictures" and would not acknowledge that any were ever sent.
"I refer to private messages between a man and a woman, two consenting adults," Ross said.
From her seat on the dais, Ross squared off on Hay. She blasted the mayor policies and accused him of leaning on commissioners to appoint Taylor, a close friend.
"You yourself said [the city] is on the brink of a disaster," Ross told Hay. "As the mayor you should take responsibility. So why don't you do us all a favor and why don't you resign?"
True or not, the allegations cast Boynton Beach back under negative headlines even as it spends thousands of dollars on rebranding to improve public perception. Interim City Manager Lori LaVerriere said her staff intends "to move forward and focus on the positive."
And elected officials, other than Hay, were more inclined to let the controversy fizzle out.
"If she wants to stay on this board, then I welcome her to stay on this board," Commissioner Steven Holzman said.
Vice Mayor Mack McCray, who mentioned Ross in his pre-meeting prayer, said nobody is guilty until proven so.
"The lady needs healing right now," McCray said. "She needs love."
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