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First report ‘vindicates’ Cape manager

By Staff | Apr 21, 2020

The results of a months-long administrative investigation into alleged staff actions within the city manager’s office were discussed by the Cape Coral City Council Monday night but the report findings will not be made public until probes deemed related are also completed.

While some council members and the city attorney said the investigation by the Tampa-based Brown Law & Consulting vindicates City Manager John Szerlag, other council members said that determination will be made after still-pending investigations come to the same conclusion.

In the end, Council decided to only make the investigative report available to Szerlag and not to the public until all investigations are finished.

According to City Attorney Dolores Menendez, the report vindicates both Szerlag and the city’s contract business manager, Jay Murphy, two of the parties named in a complaint letter to the mayor’s office.

“All allegations investigated and brought to conclusion were found to be baseless and false. Upon review of the investigation by the city attorney, it is stated in writing that no information was provided that might indicate the city manager used his position to fix the outcome of the investigation,” said Councilmember John Carioscia, who called for the discussion Monday.

Carioscia said that both were cleared and that the city manager should be reimbursed by the city for legal expenses related to the probe.

Not all on Council agreed

“Let’s wait for all the investigations to be completed. The FDLE investigation is in the State Attorney’s Office and the investigations by the police and fire department are being completed,” Councilmember John Gunter said. “You could second-guess the timeline, but even that doesn’t rise to disciplinary action.”

The investigations said to be pertinent are not all related to the complaint letter sent to Mayor Joe Coviello by the city’s finance director, Victoria Bateman.

The FDLE investigation was called for by Council at the same time it contracted Brown to look into allegations in the complaint letter.

The other two were ordered by Szerlag.

He had assigned an administrative investigation into unrelated allegations pertaining to Murphy to the fire department and assigned an administrative investigation concerning the Finance Department to the police department after a payroll payment snafu resulted in the IRS levying $402,000 in fines and penalties for the city’s failure to pay payroll taxes on time. The IRS then appropriated $370,000 in expected gas tax revenues.

Szerlag placed Bateman and two other staffers in the Finance Department on paid administrative leave while the administrative investigation was being conducted. The payment errors were allegedly made by a Finance Department employee who has since resigned and the city has said it expects most of the fines and penalties to be rebated.

The investigations by Brown and FDLE were approved by Council in January after the letter was received and Mayor Joe Coviello accused Szerlag of lack of transparency concerning the tax issue while he and Szerlag were in talks over a contract extension until Szerlag’s announced November retirement.

Coviello said the Brown report isn’t as black and white as Carioscia maintains, and that if Szerlag is to be reimbursed for legal fees, as former mayor Marni Sawicki was when ethics accusations against her proved to be unfounded, so should he be reimbursed for costs he has incurred.

“The timeline was important because it happened when his (Szerlag’s) contract was being extended. I see that as something to consider going forward,” Coviello said. “I had an attorney for the FDLE investigation. Can I be reimbursed for that?”

Councilmember Jennifer Nelson said in fairness to Bateman, Council should wait until all findings are in.

“My concern is over two stellar employees, and I feel bad it has come to this,” Nelson said. “I want to wait for all the investigations to come in. Someone else’s career is on the line.”

The decision for reimbursement of legal fees was held off until all of the investigations are complete.

Council did vote unanimously to provide a report to Szerlag, and to keep it confidential, at least for now.