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Ben Wilcox, research director for Integrity Florida, tells the city’s Independent Ethics Board he has little confidence in a City Manager’s Office investigation into FSU football tickets given to staff.

Concerned citizens blasted the city’s in-house investigation of whether laws were broken when former City Manager Rick Fernandez gave Florida State University box seat tickets to two high-ranking employees.

The city, in a report that became public Monday, found that neither of the employees violated state ethics laws by accepting the tickets in 2016 and not reporting them on state disclosure forms. Florida law requires certain public officials to report gifts over $100 and bans them from soliciting a gift from a lobbyist or vendor or from accepting such a gift over $100.

The controversy in question involves Ellen Blair, director of Human Resources, and Mike Tadros, general manager of Underground Utilities. Both accepted luxury box seat tickets from their boss Fernandez for FSU’s home game against Charleston Southern University in September 2016. The city’s Ethics Board last year referred a complaint over the tickets to the City Manager’s Office to investigate.

More: Fernandez gave football tickets to city officials; investigation finds ‘no rule violation’

Ben Wilcox, research director for Integrity Florida, was among citizens questioning the investigation and its findings. He spoke out during Tuesday’s meeting of the city’s Independent Ethics Board.

“You’re asking an employee to investigate his employees,” Wilcox said. “So it appears to me that this report … is more of a whitewash than it is an independent investigation.”

Richard Herring, chairman of the Ethics Board, said the board doesn’t have the authority to investigate the matter because the allegations date back to 2016, before it had the jurisdiction it has now.

“Even if there were a violation, I don’t know that there’s much we can do about it,” Herring said.

Bill Hollimon, a Tallahassee lawyer and member of the board, also expressed frustration, saying, “I wish we could investigate it, too.” He said if it happens again, there would be a “different kind of investigation.”

But the Ethics Board’s attorney, Jerry Currington, said the same situation could happen tomorrow and the board would have no authority to investigate because the City Commission hasn’t adopted state ethics law into the city’s ethics ordinance. He said the city similarly could not investigate alleged violations of its own gift policy because it’s not included in the ordinance.

“We could get a complaint tomorrow about sexual harassment,” Currington said. “It’s not in the (city) ethics code. It may be in the human resource policy manual. It may be somewhere else in the city’s procedures and policies. This board does not enforce the city’s policies and procedures. That’s the sad truth.”

Local businessman Erwin Jackson, whose verbal complaint about the tickets led to the report, said the city focused in on one football game and never asked the employees if they were given tickets to other games.

“The sad thing is no one asked the question because they didn’t want the answer,” Jackson said. “That’s part of the cover-up.”

Wilcox asked the Ethics Board to weigh in on the city’s investigation and issue its own findings. He noted the board took similar action when it admonished Fernandez last year for accepting nearly $5,000 in a catering discount from the city-backed Edison restaurant. A complaint about that matter is pending with the Florida Commission on Ethics.

The Ethics Board opted to revisit the ticket issue during its next meeting. Herring noted the board needed time to digest the report, which Interim City Manager Reese Goad sent to Independent Ethics Officer Julie Meadows-Keefe on Monday.

Meadows-Keefe last year referred the matter to the City Manager’s Office because of Ethics Board bylaws, which direct complaints about city employees below the appointed level to their supervisor. The Ethics Board had first reading Tuesday of a change in the bylaws allowing the ethics officer or a third party to conduct an investigation in such situations.

Interim City Manager Reese Goad, who appeared before the Ethics Board on Tuesday, defended the city’s handling of the matter, saying the report was “very thorough.” He also said he’s planning a workshop soon to discuss such matters.

“What became clear … was that we need greater awareness as an organization as it relates to these matters,” Goad said. “Clearly, we need to instill a culture of top of the mind awareness, not casual awareness, not a situation where you find yourself trying to … determine whether the gift is appropriate. I think it needs to be an easier decision. I think that it comes with more awareness and greater training.”

Goad asked Assistant City Manager Raoul Lavin to handle the investigation. Lavin’s report, dated Thursday, said neither Blair nor Tadros violated state law because the tickets didn’t exceed $100 in value. Lavin used five different calculations to determine the price of the tickets, which had a face value of $30. 

When considering food and drink served in luxury boxes, the amount that’s tax-deductible and other factors, the city found in four of the five calculations that the tickets were valued between $30 and $100. One calculation, based on a price given by Seminole Boosters, Inc., came in at $128, above the state threshold.

But Jackson said the city cooked the numbers so they’d come in under the state threshold. He said actual box seat tickets have an actual value closer to $300.

Earlier this year, Fernandez was ousted as city manager in a scandal involving box seat tickets given to him by a lobbyist with Adam Corey’s Unconventional Strategies firm. Fernandez asked for the tickets in text messages with the lobbyist that were published by the Democrat.

The city’s report on the tickets to Blair and Tadros do not say from whom Fernandez got the tickets or whether they came from Corey’s firm. Corey, an owner of the city-backed Edison restaurant, is a central figure in the FBI’s ongoing investigation into local public corruption. 

The back story:

Goad, asked Tuesday, said Fernandez got the tickets from FSU Old School, but he said he didn’t know who specifically gave them to the former city manager. Corey, a former Seminole Boosters fundraiser, is a founder of FSU Old School.

Wilcox criticized the city for not disclosing which individual gave the tickets to Fernandez.

“That’s not an investigation,” he said. “We need answers to these questions.”

Contact Jeff Burlew at jburlew@tallahassee.com or follow @JeffBurlew on Twitter.

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