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Cape Council: Let investigations run their course

By Staff | Jan 14, 2020

Some members of the Cape Coral City Council are urging patience — and discretion — as a pair of investigations continue into allegations surrounding the city’s top administrator.

Cape Coral Mayor Joe Coviello, who last week unsuccessfully moved to have City Manager John Szerlag terminated without cause, was met Monday with resistance from some his fellow board members who said the investigations need to proceed without ongoing byplay from the dais.

The discussion came following an addendum to the agenda during which City Attorney Dolores Menendez gave an update on the administrative portion of the investigation Council approved last week in the wake of a letter sent to Council from the city’s finance director, Victoria Bateman.

Council agreed to hire an investigator, Brown Law & Consulting, to look into the matter with the understanding that if issues are found, the Council is to be notified.

Menendez said the administrative investigation has started in areas away from where the Florida Department of Law Enforcement is looking to determine if there also is reason, or “predicate,” for a criminal investigation.

Menendez told Council the interviews can be transcribed for a charge of $215 per hour and asked the elected board for direction. She said they have had interviews transcribed in the past, citing their value, and said it might be prudent to do so in this matter as well.

Council generally agreed transcripts would make the allegations clearer, and voted 6-1 for the transcripts, with Councilmember Rick Williams dissenting and Councilmember Jennifer Nelson absent.

Coviello then brought up an issue he felt pertinent to the investigation. He asked the city auditor, Andrea Bittola, why a request for proposal for the possible outsourcing for the maintenance of the golf course was suspended. Coviello believed it was because of the investigation under way.

Bittola responded that it was on the advice of the external auditor, Chris Kessler, as the RFP was mentioned on the dais in connection with the allegations. Szerlag said it was suspended to reduce speculation there was tainting of the RFP process by virtue of Bateman’s letter.

Councilmember John Carioscia made a point of order that now the auditor and procurement were being thrown into the controversy publicly.

“I think it’s inappropriate to do this. While it’s under investigation, I don’t think it’s prudent to discuss any part of this investigation,” said Carioscia, a retired law enforcement professional.

Other members of the city council agreed, with some appalled that the investigation was being discussed while in process.

Williams compared it to a reality show, with the TV cameras on for a spectacle that has chipped away at Szerlag’s reputation.

“Every time we get into this, it does more to destroy his reputation and makes us look like crazy people. I don’t understand why we keep bringing this up. We need to wait until something happens. We have nothing to work with but a letter,” Williams said.

Councilmember Marilyn Stout shared a story about a retired banker who sent one of his employees to rehab for alcoholism but referred to it merely as a “vacation” to the man’s co-workers. When he returned sober, nobody knew he was gone for anything other than a vacation, keeping his reputation intact.

“Szerlag has conducted five investigations that never became public and should not have. Their reputations are at stake,” Stout said. “There was consistency in that the investigation was done, Council was notified, and it was not made public.”

Carioscia agreed that bringing the allegations up in public does not help the mayor’s case and that the investigation will bear things out.

Coviello has accused Szerlag of lack of transparency regarding an also on-going investigation into payroll tax payments that weren’t sent to the Internal Revenue Service properly. The lack of transparency issue centers around when the city manager knew about the IRS issues and the IRS’s subsequent taking of $370,000 in city gas tax revenue as part of a $402,000 fines and penalties levy. Coviello believes Szerlag knew and so should have informed Council before the board extended his contract and authorized a raise.

City officials say they expect to get all or most of the money back.

Meanwhile, the “lower level” staffer person who made the payment errors resigned, officials have said. Szerlag placed Bateman, and two of her subordinates, on administrative leave pending the investigation into the payment issue.

Last week, Coviello’s motion to dismiss the city manager without cause was defeated 5-3.

Szerlag reiterated that he has done a great job for nearly eight years and has just been defending his honor.

“I’m here about my reputation, which has been tarnished every meeting for two months. I have never put anyone on leave based on an unsubstantiated accusation,” Szerlag said. “If you did that, you would have a lot of people on paid leave.”