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That's why there's a law

December 13, 1998

History was made recently when the Florida Ethics Commission found an actual lapse of ethics in Florida. It's a rare instance of the system working the way it's supposed to.

The case centers on a man named Dennis Wardlow. In 1995, while mayor of Key West, Wardlow was charged by U.S. prosecutors with taking a bribe from lawyer John Bigler.

Bigler owned a company that rented Jet Ski-style water bikes to tourists on the island. He put Wardlow on his payroll for $100 a week, an arrangement that lasted 19 months. This was not disputed.

The mayor claimed he was being paid to do "public relations" work for Bigler. The feds said the money was meant to buy Wardlow's influence.

These payments came during a period when Key West officials were trying to regulate water-bike vendors. Wardlow participated in the key votes. He never told fellow commissioners or the public that he was taking money from a firm that was affected by the new laws.

It seemed like a textbook case of small-town bribery, with the facts weighing gloomily against the indicted mayor.

But this wasn't just any small town; it was Key West, where juries traditionally have a higher tolerance (or a narrower definition) of corruption. This is particularly true when the accused happens to be a native "Bubba."

Wardlow took the stand to proclaim that he was not a crook, and that he had done nothing wrong by taking the $100 payments. He insisted his work for Bigler was giving business advice, on weekends, with special attention to possible water-bike opportunities in the Dominican Republic.

As lame as that sounds, it was enough to sway jurors. They acquitted the mayor, and he went back to work. Bigler didn't fare so well. He pleaded guilty to attempted bribery, received one year's probation and gave up his law license. His water-bike business is no more.

The case would have ended, too, except for one indignant citizen named Jace Hobbs, a Key Wester fed up with graft. He wrote to the state Ethics Commission, not the most tenacious of watchdog agencies.

"I didn't even know it existed," Hobbs said, "until a week or so before I did it."

Yet a wondrous thing happened to his complaint: It got taken seriously. The ethics panel eventually found probable cause that Wardlow broke state rules by taking Bigler's money and failing to disclose it.

True, the commission needed almost two years to reach a conclusion that most clear-thinking adults would regard as a no-brainer. Then it took another nine months to hold a hearing, and another seven months to make a ruling … but, hey, at least something got done. For a change.

On Dec. 3, the Ethics Commission unanimously declared that Wardlow had violated seven state rules and should cough up $12,900—a $5,000 fine, plus the $7,900 he pocketed during his so-called "employment" by Bigler.

The panel also recommended a reprimand, which won't mean diddly since Wardlow is no longer Key West's mayor. Still, with the governor's backing, the fine could send a message to politicians sniffing around for extra cash: There's a chance you'll actually get punished for it—not anytime soon but long into the future, when you can barely remember which bribe they're talking about.

Jace Hobbs was out of town when news of the Wardlow ruling reached Key West. A week later, no one had yet told him about it.

He seemed quietly pleased when he heard the outcome. When I asked why he had bothered to pursue the case, Hobbs paused for a moment, then said: "I felt obligated to the community."

That's why there's a law. Sometimes, when the stars align, it even works.


Glades buyout has to happen November 15, 1998 | Kick Ass: Selected Columns of Carl Hiaasen | Bush on track with ullet January 14, 1999







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