eye on Pinellas County: Lingering ethical issues over Sembler's rezoning request in Seminole

Monday, December 12, 2005

Lingering ethical issues over Sembler's rezoning request in Seminole

Last Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2005, we watched via Internet the Pinellas County Board of Commissioners vote 4 - 3 to approve a Sembler Company request to rezone 29.6 acres of land (part of a larger 62 acre industrial tract) in Seminole from industrial-use to commercial. Many, including us, were surprised at this vote because the commission's own staff had recommended against it citing the ever diminishing county lands that are zoned for industrial use. According to Mike Meidel, the county's economic director, the county would earn substantially more in tax dollars from an industrial-use property. Sembler's charge was led by local blue blood attorney Tim Johnson of Johnson, Pope.

What we did not observe on the Internet coverage was when (after the cameras stopped rolling) Will Van Sant of the St. Petersburg Times approached the commissioners and asked whether any of them had had ex parte communications with the Sembler team before the hearing. Back in March the city council of Safety Harbor acted on another Sembler proposal also to rezone from industrial to commercial. This one was a just a 3 acre plot. Once again Sembler had been represented by Tim Johnson (plus Steve Williamson--also of Johnson, Pope). The difference in procedure from the Safety Harbor meeting and the county meeting was that right up front Safety Harbor's city attorney asked the assembled councilmen whether any had had ex parte discussions with Sembler representatives. All said they had not. No one asked the county commissioners before their meeting started.

Van Sant published his findings in The Times on Dec. 7 stating that Mel Sembler had contacted three Republican commissioners the week before and that his son Brent had tried, unsuccessfully, contacting the other two Republicans on the commission the day before the hearing. Neither of the two Democratic commissioners say they were contacted. One citizen who read Van Sant's article is Charles Plancon. Mr. Plancon was so disturbed by what he feels is a breach of ethics that he wrote a letter to the editor at The St. Pete Times that was published on Dec. 10.

He wrote that when he was the former chairman of Golden Lantern Mobile Home Owners Association in Pinellas Park, he tried to have an ex parte discussion with the county commissioners over a rezoning request but was told by a representative from the states attorney office that his association was "an affected party that stood to gain by the decision, therefore there was conflict of interest." So he was not allowed to talk to the commissioners, he wrote. After the association's request was denied, it decided to make a second attempt. But even before the second attempt was made Plancon wrote that he was told that "since the county knew that the owner of the property would refile, it was still a conflict" for him to communicate with the commissioners. Mr. Plancon feels that the commission has a double standard.

All this brings up some questions. Namely: (a) Just how extensive is Sembler's use of ex parte communications with local officials? (b) Did Sembler or any commissioner(s) do anything illegal or unethical? (c) If so, is there anything anybody can do about it?

(a) Just how extensive is Sembler's use of ex parte communications with local officials? Melvin Sembler has a history getting his name into the political spotlight by buying into politics to get what he wants like an ambassadorship now and then or a hundred million dollar monument named for his Greatness. Here is an incomplete tally of his generous donations to state and national political figures and parties: LINK.

But what about his donations and working relationships with local politicians. Last Tuesday , the Board of Commissioners sided with Sembler against the advice of its own staff. Last month the Pinellas Planning Council also voted to approve the measure despite the fact that its staff had also recommended against the proposal. Had Sembler approached any members of the council? Van Sant pointed out that Commissioner Susan Latvala sits on the Advisory Board of Betty Sembler's drug foundation. That would be Drug Free America Foundation (formerly known as Straight, Inc.). She is also executive director of Operation PAR which has been infiltrated with many former Straight officers including Betty Sembler. Ms. Latvala admits that Ambassador Sembler called her. Did Commissioner Latvala also talk to Betty Sembler about the impending zoning request? Besides the Seminole deal, has anyone from the Sembler team ever held other ex parte discussion(s) with any commissioner(s). Have any of the commissioners ever been to a function at Sembler Company or at his home (or any other social function sponsored by Sembler--whole or in part)? Has any commissioner ever had any personal business dealings with Sembler?

(b) Did Sembler or any commissioner(s) do anything illegal or unethical? No says Pinellas County Attorney Susan Churuti who was at the hearing. According to what theStraights editor Wes Fager was able to glean from her:

The matter has come up before and was decided in 1991 in Jennings vs Dade County (589 So. 2d, 1337 3rd District Court of Appeals). The court ruled that it is not illegal for a citizen to contact his elected officials. The state legislature considered the matter to be so important that it voted into law Section 286.0115 "Access to Local Officials" which makes it legal for elected officials to talk to their constituents.

(c) But if so, is there anything that anybody could do about it?

Appeals to the 2nd Court of Appeals. Ms. Churuti went on to explain that sometimes the board of commissioners acts like a judge hearing a case. In those instances it is a quasi judicial body. Other times it acts in a legislative manner. Ms. Churuti feels that last Tuesday's meeting started out as a quasi judicial body to determine yes on no or Sembler's proposal. But a broader discussion developed during the hearing as to how the county needs to improve upon its zoning scheme. But the board decided, she says, as a quasi judicial body and like any circuit judge's decision any appeal would go to the Second Court of Appeals.

Ms. Churuti concedes there could be a problem in the Seminole matter. If someone were to appeal the commission's decision the judge would rule that there is a "presumption of prejudice," especially from telephone calls--because nobody really knows what was said. Now that does not mean that an appeal of this specific case would automatically win. It only means that for starters the judge would assume "presumption of prejudice." Perhaps there are those who feel that the lost revenue that otherwise would have been generated from industrial tenants on the Seminole property will be passed on to tax payers in later years.

Lingering questions on ethics. Sembler has a history here. In 1987 Sembler formed a partnership with Clearwater city official Michael Kenton. Together they bought a swamp and almost got away selling it to Clearwater, with Kenton's lobbying, for a cool $1.65 million profit--practically overnight. States attorney James T. Russell would not even consider prosecuting Sembler for the scam. He declared it an ethics issue since Kenton worked for the city and referred the matter to the states ethics commission. Kenton was forced by the states ethics commission to forfeit his entire commission.

Mel Sembler is a very, very prominent Republican. He personally contacted three fellow Republicans about a vote they would be making. About a vote on whose outcome would mean millions to him. One commissioner he contacted was Susan Latvala. It is undeniable that the money he has given to Republicans has benefited the Latvala family (both Susan and her husband Jack). Melvin Sembler once boasted, You pay a little more, you get a little more. Indeed he gave so much to the Republicans that Congressman Bill Young appropriated $113 million to buy a monument to Sembler's Greatness!

Commissioners Karen Seel and Susan Latvala said there was "no pressure" when Sembler called. Commissioner Bob Stewart said it made him feel uncomfortable. "The significance of somebody like Mel Sembler calling and lobbying on an issue is not something that would go unrecognized or unheeded," Stewart said. We agree. We do not feel the commissioners would have handled a call from Charles Plancon the same way it did with Mel Sembler. We think it's high time for Sembler to answer up to his comment, "You pay a little more; you get a little more."

UPDATE 12-13-05:1400 EST. Wes Fager spoke to Kerrie Stillman of the Florida Commission on Ethics on Dec 13 at 1330. The commission comes under the legislature but is an independent body. Ms. Stillman advised him that the commission is not empowered to conduct grand juries or the like to ask questions of public officials like what gifts they may have received or whether they spoke to the wife of someone hoping to get a favorable ruling from a public official. A link to documents concerning ethics of state officials and employees is here. A link to forms, including Form 50 used to file a complaint, is here. The web page the Florida Commission on Ethics is here.

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