Op-ed from Rep. Matt Gaetz: Fixing Okaloosa

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Editor’s note: The following is an op-ed from Representative Matt Gaetz.

Since age nine, Okaloosa County has been my home. My mother grew up here. Someday, my children will too. I love Okaloosa County – and that’s why our government should be worthy of our great citizens. After all, countless honest, hardworking county employees see their service dishonored each day the politicians fail to truly accept responsibility and begin real reform.

Our own Commissioner Nathan Boyles doesn’t want to spend another day in Tallahassee. He’s upset that the state’s Auditor General and the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee are probing the seven figure TDC corruption scandal.

Mr. Boyles says he wants to heal the county. So do the rest of us. But before the healing can begin, the infection of incompetence has to be surgically removed. If we just patch our wounds without removing their causes, abscesses will continue to erupt in the future. 

That’s the reason law enforcement authorities came to me requesting an investigation by the State Auditor General. The Tallahassee hearings which Mr. Boyles scoffs at are one result of that investigation. By law, the Auditor General must report its findings to the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee, a bi-partisan group of senators and representatives from across the state. By law, those reports are made in public. The surgery Okaloosa County needs cannot happen in the dark.

The facts are not in dispute. A luxury house, expensive cars, a yacht and motorcycles were purchased with public money. Chauffeurs were paid – even when they didn’t drive anyone anywhere. $80,000 was spent for AV equipment no one can find and a concert that never happened. A million dollars worth of “gift cards” were handed out and no one knows for sure who got them or how they were used. A $42,000 party fed and watered county officials. No one objected. Every one of these transactions went through county books. Every contract was reviewed by county attorneys. Every check was written by county officials. Every dollar wasted, stolen, mismanaged or missing belonged to the public.

Sixty-four times state auditors described county government actions as “contrary to law.” The conclusion of the Auditor General, who has examined hundreds of public agencies: “This was as bad as we’ve ever seen.” Those who were supposed to be watching were so incompetent that they should never be allowed to manage public money again. They are the infection, and they haven’t been removed.

So, where do we go from here? How do we ensure that this never happens again? Frankly, the county commission would prefer that the Legislature merely accept that they will “do better next time.” I’m skeptical.

Their solutions? Fire nobody. Keep the same crew in charge of the county checkbook. Keep the same county attorney. Refuse to confess conflicts of interest inherent in having politicians steer public money to entities that pay them. Pass policies promising to not engage in the very behavior that was illegal when it first occurred. Point fingers at volunteers. Blame “the Gaetzes” for “flexing political muscle.” Call for “healing” in lieu of real reform and accountability.

I too want Okaloosa County to heal. But the same people cannot be left in the same positions with an expectation of different results. Surgery sometimes helps the healing process more than denial. Immediately, Okaloosa Commissioners should pull out the scalpel and:

· Admit that public officials violate conflict of interest laws if they steer money to entities that pay them;

· Determine exactly who in county government made payments for mansions, Porsches, yachts and motorcycles – and fire them;

· Fire the county attorney who failed to protect taxpayer interests;

· End the practice of elaborate county parties funded by public money;

· End the use of “p-cards” that allowed thousands of dollars to be spent on alcohol, gifts and entertainment;

· Identify every individual who wrongly used debit cards for themselves– and report those individuals for prosecution;

· Identify every contractor who submitted fraudulent requests for reimbursement – and report them for prosecution;

· Fully cooperate with the Auditor General in a top-to-bottom audit of all Okaloosa County activities – even beyond the TDC.

The Florida Legislature has no authority to remove local government officials from office. Only the Governor – or the people in an election – can do that. If county commissioners want to change the subject instead of changing their ways, healing cannot occur and the past is bound to repeat itself.

As your state representative, I’m sickened by the failures of our county government. The difference is that I’d rather undergo a painful reckoning today than be complicit in the next episode of “Okaloosa County Government Gone Wild.” You deserve no less. You should never be embarrassed by Okaloosa County ever again.

I’ll keep fighting to deliver the tough medicine – even if it’s tough for some politicians to swallow.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.