BOYNTON BEACH — For the first time, Palm Beach County's ethics statute has been used to charge someone criminally : suspended Boynton Beach Mayor José Rodriguez.
Rodriguez, 49, was arrested Jan. 26 on corruption charges, and Gov. Rick Scott suspended him the following day. His trial is set for late July.
In an amended complaint filed Thursday, a new count — the fourth one he is facing — accuses Rodriguez of trying to get special treatment "inconsistent with the proper performance of his public duties." It's a second-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 60 days in jail.
The three charges filed in January allege he pressured Police Chief Matt Immler and Interim City Manager Lori LaVerriere to stop an investigation into his alleged abuse of his then-11-year-old stepdaughter. Investigators ultimately concluded Rodriguez broke no laws in connection with the child.
The most serious of those three charges, unlawful compensation or reward for official behavior, is a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison. A second charge, solicitation for confidential criminal information, is a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail.
Besides adding the fourth charge, the amended indictment changes the third charge against Rodriguez to "attempted" obstruction of a law-enforcement officer, specifically Immler and Detective Ray de los Rios. That reduces the charge to from a first-degree misdemeanor to a second-degree one .
Rodriguez has proclaimed his innocence. His attorney, Jason Weiss, said he found "the new second degree misdemeanor charge to be a product of prosecutorial desperation and a recognition on the part of the state that its case against Mayor Rodriguez is extremely weak.
"The facts at trial will reveal a concerted effort by the Boynton Beach Police Department to retaliate against Mayor Rodriguez for his public criticism of the department late last year. Mayor Rodriguez will continue to fight these charges and looks forward to his day in court," Weiss said in his statement.
Alan Johnson, executive director of the Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics, confirmed Friday that the new charge against Rodriguez is the first under the ethics statute. He said he had talks with assistant state attorney Daniel E. Funk but that he and the commission neither initiated nor actively worked on the charge. He declined to comment beyond that.
Funk, reached Friday, also declined to comment.
The county's ethics statute was created in 2009 as part of a reform package to help Palm Beach C ounty shed its corruption-tainted image, after scandals sent three county commissioners to federal prison. An amendment to the county charter approved by voters in 2010 extended the office's reach to all 38 cities and towns.
Rodriguez's estranged wife, Sarah Marquez, had gone to police Aug. 6 to discuss problems with her marriage. Detectives later closed the inquiry related to his stepdaughter but reopened it Nov. 9.
Documents show Rodriguez grew enraged and twice called Immler, telling him to stop pursuing the child-abuse case. Rodriguez later allegedly suggested to LaVerriere — who has been interim manager since June 2011 — that pressuring Immler would help her bid to get hired outright.
Thus far, the numbers haven't worked for LaVerriere being hired for the permanent job, which would require her to receive a 4-1 vote. On the record as supporting LaVerriere are Woodrow Hay, who became interim mayor in February,Vice Mayor Mack McCray and commissioner Bill Orlove. Commissioners Steven Holzman and Marlene Ross pushed for a "no-confidence" vote for her in February. It ultimately failed.
Officials conducted a nationwide search for city manager candidates besides LaVerriere. Commissioners picked three finalists. Two dropped out, but Michael G. Miller flew in from New Mexico for a June 1 interview. The commission is set to revisit the manager search at its July 3 meeting.
Charges against Boynton Beach Mayor:
An updated indictment filed this week charges suspended Mayor José Rodriguez with:
1. Offering interm City Manager Lori LaVerriere "protection" in exchange for her help — a first-degree felony, punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
2. Soliciting her to provide confidential criminal information about the investigation — a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail.
3. Trying to obstruct the efforts Chief Matt Immler and detective Ray de los Rios in their investigation — a second-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 60 days in jail. This charge was changed to "attempted."
Source: Palm Beach County Circuit Court, Palm Beach County State Attorney, Palm Beach Post archives.
Palm Beach County Code of Ethics, Section 2-443
"(b): Corrupt misuse of official position. An official or employee shall not use his or her official position or office, or any property or resource which may be within his or her trust, to corruptly secure or attempt to secure a special privilege, benefit, or exemption for himself, herself, or others. For the purposes of this subsection, "corruptly" means done with a wrongful intent and for the purpose of obtaining, or compensating or receiving compensation for, any benefit resulting from some act or omission of an official or employee which is inconsistent with the proper performance of his or her public duties."
Source: Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics