Corruption ‘report card’ delivers praise for Palm Beach County

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Palm Beach County earned high marks in a corruption reform "report card" released Friday by a state grand jury, along with a warning of "unfinished work" still needed to protect the public.

While praising the scandal-ridden County Commission for enacting new anti-corruption measures, the grand jury also called for expanding those efforts to cities, the School Board and other branches of local government.

In addition, the grand jury called for state legislators to pass tough new anti-corruption laws to tackle the issue statewide.

"Palm Beach County and the state of Florida have much unfinished work before the community can have renewed and full confidence in our public servants," the grand jury said in its report.

Palm Beach County scandals made national news after three former county commissioners and two West Palm Beach city commissioners since 2006 were caught in federal corruption investigations.

In the wake of the scandals, State Attorney Michael McAuliffe led a state grand jury investigation looking for ways to clean up local government. That grand jury in May 2009 released a report calling for a slew of ethics reforms, and McAuliffe issued a warning that in 2010 he would be calling for a new grand jury to gauge the county's progress.

Since then, the County Commission approved a new code of ethics, created an Ethics Commission and agreed to hire an inspector general to serve as a full-time government watchdog targeting waste and corruption.

"We should get an A+," Commission Chairman Burt Aaronson said about the grand jury report released Friday.

While the county hasn't approved all of the proposals, the new grand jury on Friday issued a report praising the county for making "great strides in reversing the erosion of public trust."

But the county's work is far from finished, according to the grand jury.

The report said adequate funding — difficult at a time of countywide budget cuts — must be provided to ensure that the new Ethics Commission and inspector general are effective.

The grand jury called for the county to follow through on a public referendum in November that would ask voters to change the county's charter to spread the powers of the inspector general and ethics commission to cities.

McAuliffe and community groups backing the anti-corruption measures have been lobbying for cities, the School Board and other elected county officials — such as the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office — to voluntarily come under the oversight umbrella of the inspector general.

"It's going to have to be everybody in the county getting on board with this," said David Baker, of the Palm Beach County Ethics Initiative, a coalition of business and civic groups that pushed the county to adopt the grand jury's recommendations.

Baker was one of the witnesses called before the grand jury that issued Friday's report. County Attorney Denise Nieman also appeared before the grand jury to discuss the county's progress.

The county's new ethics code begins May 1. It calls for tougher lobbying registration and reporting requirements; more disclosure of potential conflicts of interests; more scrutiny of county land deals; punishing ethics violators with up to 60 days of jail time in addition to fines; empowering the new ethics commission to rule on cases of suspected violations; more ethics training for government employees and officials; and new limits on gifts county employees can receive.

The county's new five-member, independently appointed Ethics Commission started meeting in February.

The Ethics Commission is now working with McAuliffe and the Public Defender's Office to hire the county's first inspector general. The list is down to 12 finalists, expected to be interviewed in early May.

"We have done everything significant that the grand jury asked," County Administrator Robert Weisman said. "Everything is going according to the plan."

Andy Reid can be reached at abreid@SunSentinel.com or 561-228-5504.

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