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County reviews ethics rules; Spurred by investigation

By Staff | Oct 3, 2008

Days after Lee County Manager Don Stilwell was cleared of lying to county commissioners and investing in land in the path of a planned county road, officials are looking to tighten county ethics rules.

The rules, commissioners suggested during Tuesday’s hearing, should include a prohibition on investing in property in the county.

Lee County Attorney David Owen said that is a subject to be approached carefully.

“You don’t give up all your constitutional rights when you become a county official,” said Owen. “There can be reasonable limitations agreed to, but I want us to be careful with this.”

He said that such a prohibition can be built into the contracts of employees who have them, but that covers only Stilwell, Port Authority Director Bob Ball, two hearing examiners and himself.

If the prohibition is expanded to cover other county employees — or even just other employees in positions of influence — it gets tricky.

Owen said he will take his lead from what commissioners said Tuesday, specifically what Commissioner Frank Mann said.

Mann said Wednesday that he is unaware if the county even had an employee code of ethics.

“I had no clue if we had an ethics code of any kind,” he said.

Mann said he is more concerned with the lack of ethics provisions in contracts.

“Where we came up short was there was nothing in Mr. Stilwell’s contract,” he said. “There’s a big void at the top. It’s embarrassing and it needs to be fixed.”

Stilwell already pledged after his absolution Tuesday that he would never again invest in land in Lee County.

Stilwell did invest in land in the county, though he had no interest in the controversial Daniels View property that sparked a five-month investigation past a second mortgage to his indicted son-in-law Samir Cabrera.

Mann said he would like to see contract provisions that mirror the ethics code of the International City/County Managers Association. The code advises on real estate investment.

“In the case of real estate, the potential use of confidential information and knowledge to further a members personal interest requires special consideration,” says a guidelines in the ICMA code. “The guideline recognizes that members’ official actions and decisions can be influenced if there is a conflict with personal investments. Purchases and sales which might be interpreted as speculation for quick profit ought to be avoided.”

Commissioner Brian Bigelow, who has pushed repeatedly to fire Stilwell and referred to the Tuesday report as “an expensive whitewash,” said he would like to see the ICMA code incorporated into contracts.

“I say cut and paste the ICMA code and we’re good to go,” he said. “It’s been around a long time and they’ve handled a lot of issues.”

Lee County does have a code of ethics that applies to about 2,600 employees answerable to the county manager, but it does not deal directly with real estate investments. It does prohibit personal investments “in any enterprise that would reasonably create a conflict between his or her private interests and the public interest.”

The Lee County ethics code mirrors state ethics laws that apply to public officials, Owen said. 

Collier County’s code is stricter in some areas, but does not deal directly with land investment. Collier commissioners adopted ethics rules for themselves and for senior managers in 2004 on the heels of the Stadium Naples scandal that derailed two commissioners.

Owen said he would not expect other jurisdictions would prohibit investment.

“I would expect not, but we’ll do our due diligence, and those are reasonable things to look at,” he said.

Mann said his main concern is for contracted employees, but if the effort grows to include all employees that is all right.

He said it is true employees do not have to agree to an ethics code.

“Frankly they’re not required to take this job either,” he said. “I’ll just have to wait and see what they say. If it opens the door for a broader look I’m perfectly willing to take that look as well.”

Charlie Whitehead is a writer for Bonita Daily News.