New Ethics Complaint Accuses Wellington Mayor, Financial Backer of “Working Together” to Cover Up Questionable Payment
9 years ago StraightArrow Comments Off on New Ethics Complaint Accuses Wellington Mayor, Financial Backer of “Working Together” to Cover Up Questionable Payment
By KENNETH J. BRADDICK
The organizer of Palm Beach horse shows is seeking to reopen a government ethics investigation of the mayor of Wellington and a financial backer, accusing them of “working together” making “false statements, half truths and material omission of critical facts” to cover up questionable payments.
At the center of the complaint to the Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics and Florida Gov. Rick Scott was the date a check for $4,000–40 times the legal limit of $100–was issued to Mayor Robert Margolis.
The ethics commission dismissed the initial complaint, describing violations of local and state laws by the mayor and Victoria McCullough, a Wellington resident who oppose elements of the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center and who paid the money, as “inadvertent.”
Testimony in the initial hearing by the pair alleged that a check for $4,000 was sent to the mayor’s legal defense fund in late March, 2012, but was “lost” and a new check issued to Mayor Margolis by Ms. McCullough in July.
Mayor Margolis and two other council members were elected with massive financial backing from opponents of development of the horse show grounds and they took control of the five-member council that governs the Village of Wellington, a community of 58,000 people.
The original complaint and the latest submission were filed by Mark Bellissimo, managing partner of Wellington Equestrian Partners that owns the show grounds hosting the Winter Equestrian Festival and the Global Dressage Festival.
The group’s expansion of PBIEC sparked controversy by building a state of the art dressage complex on fields that once were the heart of the community’s equestrian activities–the original Palm Beach Polo Club that attracted thousands of spectators for weekly matches that featured Britain’s Prince Charles and his late wife, Princess Diana. They had not been used for several years, though, and the development plans provided for a condominium hotel and a boutique retail plaza that were shelved after council members that approved the project were defeated in elections a year ago.
Since then, opponents of the development led by the wealthy Jacobs family and supported by Ms. McCullough and Neil Hirsch, the owner of a nearby restaurant and bar, have waged a campaign to tear down the dressage complex while publicly declaring their support for dressage. The three provided the bulk of financing for election of candidates opposed to the facility and have financed legal efforts to block or limit use of the multimillion dollars dressage grounds. Their efforts have helped halt previously approved construction of stables, led to withdrawal of a bid to host the 2018 World Equestrian Games. cancellation of a live performance by the Palm Beach Pops to accompany Freestyle performancs, restricting use of the facility to six months a year and, just this week, ignored requests for safe passage of horses to allow access at a second location away from a heavily trafficed road that forced sharply curtailed competition on a grass jumper derby field alongside the dressage arenas.
The latest complaint of seven single-spaced pages with 42 pages of supporting documentation came after Bellissimo’s legal team reviewed statements made by the mayor and Ms. McCullough in different Ethics Commission cases. The detailed analysis showed what the complaint alleged was “wrongful information and/or deliberate material omissions.”
The complete filing is available by clicking on: ESP – Development – Letter to PB County Ethics Commission re Margolis.
The detailed review, supported by documents already provided to the ethics commission along with a comparison of statements to commission investigators, showed:
–Mayor Margolis did not establish his legal defense fund until May 17, 2012, about three months after the “lost” check was supposedly written. The Bellissimo complaint said “it was impossible” to issue a check in March for an account that did not exist until May;
–The mayor and his wife initially both told an ethics commission investigator that the date of the first eheck was May.
–In a second interview after the investigator talked with Ms. McCullough they changed their story to say the check was written later.
–Ms. McCullough told the investigator she first made a donation to another council member. Matt Wilhite, and only later made payment to the mayor’s fund. Her records showed the check to Wilhite was No. 2234 and deposited on June 5, at least three months after she stated she issued a check to the mayor;
–The so-called “lost” check to the mayor was No 2128–which the complaint said was “impossibe” because it predated the Wilhite check she said was issued first.
The latest complaint by Bellissimo also pointed to the failure of Mayor Margolis and Victoria McCullough to list their positions in government before the election that made them subect to ethics laws. In dismissing the first complaint, the Palm Beach commission relied solely on the records provided by the pair that any violations of laws was due to ignorance on their part because they had not previously been required to meet the ethics standards.
The Bellissimo complaint gave a detailed resume of the positions both the mayor and Ms. McCullough held prior to last year’s election that included serving on government advisory boards for which members are subject to the same ethics laws.
Further, the complaint alleges, both Mayor Margolis and Ms. McCullough failed to disclose involvement in zoning issues affecting the horse show grounds, and Ms. McCullough did not provide information that she acted as a lobbyist and hired lobbyists, although she was required by law to do so.
Supporting documents show their government involvement and a record of being involved in issues impacting the show grounds. Ms. McCullough owns property that adjoins the show grounds.
“I believe that Mayor Margolis and Ms. McCullough worked together in an effort to mislead the commission,” Bellissimo’s statement said.
“…they have inappropriately taken advantage of the Ethics Commission’s investigative process of obtaining opinions from the Commission that are based on false statements, half-truths and material omissions of critical facts, to use as purported vindication for their unethical activities.
“I do not believe that a March 2012 gift check was issued to Mayor Margolis, but he was nonetheless subject to the County Ethics Code at that time.
“There are numerous inconsistencies in the testimony of both Mayor Margolis and Ms. McCullough.
“If public servants believe they can manipulate the system with impunity by omitting information or providing inaccurate or misleading information then the system breaks down.
“It is the role of this Commission to protect the public from the unethical acts of corrupt public officials, to hold our elected officials accountable for their actions and to use its powers to punish the wrongful behavior so that all citizens can be assured that their government is fair and just.
“The Commission should immediately and with the full force and effect of the law reconsider its decision to dismiss the Ethics Complaint and send a clear message that it will not tolerate manipulation of the system.”