Gifts to West Palm Beach city employees test ethics law

Staff received free tickets to a VIP party

— More than two dozen West Palm Beach city employees did not disclose free tickets they received to a city-sponsored VIP party on the Fourth of July, which may be a violation of a new countywide gift reporting law.

Palm Beach County ethics chief Alan Johnson said Thursday it appears that, under the county's new gift disclosure rules, about 30 city employees were required to report that they received more than two tickets to the city's 4th on Flagler party - a freebie valued at more than $100.

Just how valuable the tickets were, though, remains in question by some employees who were not clear on the reporting requirement. A city manager estimated each ticket was worth $50, but tickets to the event never were sold and the price was not printed on the ones that were given away.

Some ethics watchdogs say West Palm Beach's ticket giveaway shows that leaders still need more education and training on the new requirements.

Government employees had until Nov. 1 to report the gifts to the county's Commission on Ethics, a requirement instituted as part of a package of anti-­corruption reforms recommended by a 2009 grand jury. The reforms came after three county commissioners and two West Palm Beach commissioners were imprisoned in separate felony cases over a four-year period. Last year voters overwhelmingly decided to extend the ethics requirements to all the county's cities and towns.

The questions about nondisclosure of the tickets arose last week, after The Palm Beach Post requested city records on the tickets.

West Palm Beach has not asked the county's ethics commission to weigh in on whether the lack of disclosures of the 4th on Flagler tickets violates the new rule. As a result no advisory opinion has been issued, said Johnson, executive director of the commission.

"They never asked the question," Johnson said. "My view of the code is that they do" have to disclose.

City leaders argue the rules are confusing and that many employees thought they didn't have to file the annual gift reports until the end of the year.

Questions spur late filings

City spokesman Chase Scott said some employees reported gifts after The Post asked for a list of officials who had been given the tickets. As of Friday, the ethics commission had not received the disclosures. However, Johnson said officials would not be penalized for filing late.

"This is the first go-round," Johnson said of the rule. "People may be confused. I don't want to spend county money to take 10 people before the Commission on Ethics."

Under the county law, employees and volunteer board members in the county and all 38 of its cities and towns are required to disclose gifts valued at more than $100. Personal gifts, including those from spouses and relatives, are exempt from the reporting requirement.

Officials are barred from accepting gifts valued at more than $100 from a lobbyist or vendor. Those who fail to report can be fined and reprimanded.

The gift law applies to 20,000 government employees, officials and advisory board members. But as of Nov. 1, just 150 reported receiving a gift. More than 100 of them work for the town of Palm Beach, records show.

In West Palm Beach, City Administrator Ed Mitchell and Assistant City Administrator Neil Melick were the only two employees to disclose the 4th on Flagler tickets by the deadline. Mitchell reported taking eight tickets, although records obtained by The Post show he received 15.

Mitchell said he gave the remaining seven tickets to secretaries in his office, but he said the city will begin tracking tickets more efficiently.

"In the past, if the Jamaican festival gave us tickets, (staff members) would just come by and pick them up," Mitchell said. "We're learning as we go here, and now the recipient of that ticket needs to be documented rather than us just giving them out. Personally, I only used eight tickets to 4th on Flagler."

The tickets were given to employees, Mayor Jeri Muoio, city commissioners, members of the committee that helped plan the city's 4th of July festivities, and sponsors of the fireworks display. The $50 value was not printed on the stubs.

Fireworks sponsors, including Comcast, Catalfumo Global Distributors, and Palm Beach Newspapers Inc., which publishes The Post, received 230 tickets. Palm Beach Newspapers received eight tickets.

In all, 554 tickets were given out, city records show.

Each ticket admitted one adult and up to two children under the age of 12 to the city's VIP party at the Meyer Amphitheatre, where they were able to watch the fireworks from seating set up at the top of a berm. Food, beverages and alcoholic drinks also were provided.

Muoio and all five city commissioners received multiple tickets. But those officials were not subject to the Nov. 1 deadline; they are required to report gifts to the state's ethics commission, and their deadline is next month.

Records show that Muoio was given 25 tickets. Among commissioners, Bill Moss received 11, Ike Robinson and

Kimberly Mitchell were given 10 each, Keith James was given eight tickets and Sylvia Moffett six.

No specific instructions

Although all city employees have completed an ethics training course highlighting the gift rules, city spokesman Scott said employees were not specifically told to report the 4th on Flagler tickets.

Christine Thrower, the city's parks and recreation director, said that some staffers were confused by the reporting requirement, because 4th on Flagler is a city-sponsored event run by their employer.

Thrower received six tickets but said she used only two. She reported the gifts after The Post's inquiry.

"We did have a company underwriting our hospitality tent and I think (the ethics commission) wants to err on the side of caution. So it makes sense to report," Thrower said. "There have been a lot of questions with my staff and the city attorney of whether this was an event we were required to report."

Call for better education

The tickets' value was also confusing, Thrower said. A single city manager set the value at $50, but many employees may not have realized they were worth that much, she added.

"You could arguably say that while Duffy's is the sponsor, did we get $50 worth of food?" Thrower said. "Then you factor in the value of the special seating area and beverages. It's an inexact science, trying to value something that's in-kind. We didn't get anything from Duffy's to say (Duffy's) spent $10,000 on goods or $5,000 on food."

Marty Rogol, who was on the panel that helped craft the county's ethics rules, said he wasn't surprised that many West Palm Beach officials failed to report the tickets. The oversight, he said, shows that cities and towns need to do a better job educating their employees about the requirement.

"The leadership of each of the entities who have people who should be making reports needs to educate their employees and elected officials," Rogol said. "The best thing is for it to be done voluntarily."