Suspended Boynton mayor fights ethics count

BOYNTON BEACH, Fla. - Facing its first test in a criminal case, Palm Beach County's year-old ethics ordinance is being challenged as unconstitutional by suspended Boynton Beach Mayor José Rodriguez.

An attorney for Rodriguez, who has been charged with corruption, filed a motion June 28 saying the key part of the law that Rodriguez allegedly violated is unconstitutionally vague and conflicts with state statute.

The ordinance, originally written for Palm Beach County officials, was expanded last year to cover the county's cities, towns and villages. It is a major piece of the package of ethics reforms — overwhelmingly backed by voters — intended to combat corruption in the county, where four former county commissioners are now convicted felons.

Alan Johnson, the executive director of the Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics, said he believes the code will be upheld.

"This will pass constitutional muster," Johnson said. "It's a good motion because it's never been done. It's a valid motion. But the code section will be upheld."

Rodriguez, 49, was arrested Jan. 26 after charges were filed alleging he pressured Boynton Beach Police Chief Matt Immler and Interim City Manager Lori LaVerriere to stop an investigation into his alleged abuse of his stepdaughter, then 11. Investigators concluded the child-abuse allegations were unfounded, but Rodriguez was charged with abusing his power as mayor.

Rodrigeuz's trial is set to start July 27. He faces more than 15 years in prison.

Initially, three charges — all based on state statute — were filed against Rodriguez. In June, a fourth was tacked on, accusing Rodriguez of breaking the ethics ordinance's ban on "corrupt misuse of official position."

In the motion, Leonard Feuer, an attorney for Rodriguez, attacked the county's definition of corrupt misuse of official position. He cited other Florida laws that have language similar to the county's ordinance that were struck down for being vague.

"The terms ‘special privileges or exemptions' afford one no guidelines, no ‘ascertainable standard of guilt,' no barometer by which a public official may measure his specific conduct," Feuer wrote in the motion.

"The charge and the accusations in general are a tale of sound and fury ultimately signifying nothing," he said in an email.

David Baker, a lawyer who led the committee that recently updated the ordinance, said he's not surprised the code is being challenged.

"The ethics code is new, and I suspect lawyers will take shots at it for a while," he said.

Johnson said both of Feuer's arguments are flawed.

"There is a specific Florida statute that says counties can impose additional or more stringent standards of conduct," Johnson said. "We can go beyond the state level."

Johnson pointed to a previous Florida case that used a similar defense — unconstitutional vagueness — unsuccessfully. There, the statute was upheld; the fact that it did not "specifically list every ‘special privilege, benefit, or exemption' public officers were prevented from securing" did not make it unconstitutionally vague, a Florida court found.

Neither Johnson nor Baker said they had heard of the challenge before speaking with The Post. Drew McMahon, a chief assistant county attorney, said the county hadn't heard of it, either.

Richard Lubin, a West Palm Beach defense attorney who is not involved in Rodriguez's case, said Feuer's arguments have merit.

"It is a hallmark of constitutional requirement that criminal statutes cannot be constitutionally vague," Lubin said.

The state will have to argue that this ordinance provides public officials with enough specificity about what conduct is required and who it applies to, he said.

"They got their hands full with trying to differentiate this one" from the decisions Feuer cited, Lubin said. "I think they got some explaining to do."

Assistant state attorney Daniel E. Funk, the prosecutor in the case, could not be reached for comment Friday.

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