Two high-ranking city officials accepted Florida State University football tickets in 2016 from former City Manager Rick Fernandez, who was ousted earlier this year for accepting football tickets from a local lobbying firm under FBI scrutiny.
The city, in an internal inquiry, determined the employees did not violate Florida law by accepting the tickets or not reporting them as gifts because they didn’t exceed a $100 threshold in statutes. However, the city found, had the tickets cost a penny more, they would have exceeded the statutory threshold.
The report, dated Thursday, doesn’t say where Fernandez got the football tickets or whether they came from Adam Corey’s Unconventional Strategies lobbying firm. The tickets that ultimately led to Fernandez’s exit came from Corey’s firm.
The back story:
The report says Fernandez offered the tickets on Sept. 9, 2016, to Ellen Blair, Human Resources director, and Mike Tadros, general manager of Underground Utilities. The tickets were for FSU Old School sky box seats at Doak Campbell Stadium for the Charleston Southern University game the following day.
Blair got two tickets and attended the game with another city employee; Tadros got one ticket and also attended the game, according to the report.
Florida law bars public officials like Blair and Tadros from “knowingly accepting” gifts from vendors or lobbyists if the public official “knows or reasonably believes” the gift has a value over $100. Gifts that aren’t prohibited have to be reported unless they’re given by people such as family members.
Both Blair and Tadros believed the football tickets in question were valued at $30 apiece because that was their face value, the report says. The city, attempting to determine the actual value of the tickets, ran five different calculations. And while four of the five results came in at $100 or less, one came in at $128.17, the report says.
Tickets for FSU football games vary depending on the game. City officials determined the “clearest evidence” of the value of the sky box ticket for the game in question was listed on the Seminole Boosters’ price sheet at $100.
The City Manager’s Office began looking into the matter after the city’s Independent Ethics Board received an oral complaint. It was submitted to Interim City Manager Reese Goad by Assistant City Manager Raoul Lavin.
“It is determined that there was no intent from either employee to actively solicit a vendor/lobbyist for these tickets,” the report says.
Blair, in a Jan. 24 written statement, recalled Fernandez arranging for her to pick up the tickets but no further discussion about it. She said she didn’t consider the tickets to be a gift for several reasons, including their listed face value of $30.
She also wrote that the tickets were offered to her by Fernandez and not “by any outside party.” She noted no outside party was in Fernandez’s office at the time.
“At no time did Mr. Fernandez condition my acceptance of the tickets or my attendance at the game upon me providing any services or favors for him or anyone else or arranging for me to meet with anyone, nor did I,” she wrote. “I had every reason to believe that his offer was merely a gesture of kindness to me.”
Blair added she did not know she was considered a “reporting individual” under Florida statutes until more than a year later, in January 2018. Such officials must file financial and gift disclosures.
Fernandez was placed on paid administrative leave last year after the Tallahassee Democrat published a text message exchange between him and a lobbyist in Corey’s firm, which is linked to a wide-ranging FBI public corruption probe in the capital city. In the exchange, Fernandez asked for the tickets and thanked the lobbyist after they were dropped off at City Hall. He retired under pressure in January.
Goad, in a Monday email to Independent Ethics Officer Julie Meadows-Keefe, said his office conducted a “thorough review” of the allegation.
“Based on this investigation, there was no rule violation by the two employees; however, having fully considered the issue and the importance of this matter I intend to schedule a workshop for the directors and members of the leadership team to improve awareness of these issues,” Goad said. “I also intend to ensure that all new employees will receive ethics training within the first week of employment, and that all employees will receive an annual ethics refresher course.”
Contact Jeff Burlew at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @JeffBurlew on Twitter.
Read the report:
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