Miami Beach

Bribery attempts in Miami Beach drop, but they still happen, ethics survey shows

Twenty-two percent of Miami Beach public employees surveyed by Miami-Dade government ethics officials say they’ve been offered a bribe at some point in their career — highlighting a pitfall of working in a sexy, high-rolling atmosphere where a great deal of money flows through the city.

For a city that has battled corruption within its ranks, the number marks a welcome decrease from results of the same survey taken four years ago, when Miami Beach was grappling with the aftermath of serious corruption scandals. In 2012, seven fire inspectors and code compliance officers were caught taking bribes from an Ocean Drive nightclub. Later that year, a former procurement director was charged with rigging public bids.

Back then, 27 percent of employees reported having been offered a bribe, and just 33 percent felt there were appropriate protections for whistleblowers.

Now, after the institution of reforms that include ethics training for employees, most of the survey results suggest the culture of ethics in City Hall has improved, morale has improved and the likelihood that public employees will report corruption is much higher.

Still, some of the results indicate that while the incidence of attempted bribery has slowed down, it has not been eliminated.

“We still have some ways to go, absolutely,” said Jimmy Morales, the Beach’s city manager. “But we’ve made a lot of progress.”

The survey, administered in December, spanned 218 employees in departments most likely to be targets of bribery attempts — procurement, code compliance, building, parking, fire prevention, finance and planning. Of those, 100 were with the city before 2014 and took the previous survey. Thirty of these employees reported having been offered a bribe at some point in their careers. The survey didn’t ask when the offers happened, so they could have been included in the 2014 survey, as well.

In December’s survey, 17 people hired after the last survey said they had been offered a bribe.

The survey did not ask respondents whether they took bribes or whether they had reported bribery offers to their supervisor or law enforcement.

A summary of the results, released by the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust on Wednesday, said the numbers suggest that the “incidence of bribery may be declining” because of increased awareness of ethics rules and, perhaps, because potential bribers may think Beach employees are less receptive.

It’s not enough to say ‘If I keep my nose clean, I’m OK’

Joe Centorino, on the need to encourage public employees to report attempted bribery

The department with the highest percentage of employees stating they had been offered bribes was fire prevention (36 percent), followed by parking (35 percent) and then code compliance (30 percent).

Another significant finding: While only a third said there were adequate protections against retaliation for people reporting ethical misconduct in 2013, 67 percent answered yes this time.

“People are much more likely to blow the whistle,” said Karl Ross, an investigator for the ethics commission. “That says a lot about the administration.”

Joe Centorino, director of the ethics commission, said he was encouraged by the feedback that shows employees are generally happier, feel better trained and empowered to report ethical violations. Among the positives: a 16 percent increase in the number of workers who said their co-workers had high morale.

Centorino, a former state prosecutor, commended the Beach for bringing in ethics commission staff to set up the training program and participating in the survey, which has not been conducted in other cities.

Before he resigned in summer 2012, former city manager Jorge Gonzalez asked the ethics commission to conduct intense training in City Hall.

The increased emphasis on ethics came out of a plan left behind by former city manager Jorge Gonzalez, who resigned in the summer of 2012 in the wake of the corruption arrests. He is now the manager in Bal Harbour.

On Wednesday, Gonzalez said the results were encouraging from a management perspective but that it places the onus on law enforcement to prosecute those who offer bribes.

He said nothing will change “if the worst thing that can happen is the guy you bribe goes to jail” while no action is taken against the person offering the bribe.

Mayor Philip Levine, who was elected to office in 2013 and promised to work with Morales to clean up City Hall, told the Miami Herald that he was pleased with the positives in the survey numbers because it reflected changes the city has the power to make.

“I think we saw a tremendous change of culture,” he said. “And we’re not in the business of changing the culture of the public. What we can do is change the culture of the staff of Miami Beach.”

Morales has hired new staffers to lead city departments, including departments that were surveyed. The city has operated with no corruption arrests but not without incident.

The plundering of a city bank account to the tune of $3.6 million, a theft uncovered in December that led to shakeups in the finance department, remains unresolved and under investigation.

Levine said the problem of private entities attempting to offer bribes to public employees is amplified in an environment like the Beach, and South Florida in general, where wealth abounds, real-estate investment booms and new development projects are filtered through the approval process in City Hall.

“We’re in Miami Beach,” he said. “This is not Pensacola.”

This article has been amended to correct the number of employees who reported being offered a bribe in the 2016 survey.

Joey Flechas: 305-376-3602, @joeflech