South Miami

Ethics Commission scolds South Miami mayor for voting for city to pay his legal fees

South Miami Mayor Philip Stoddard was issued a letter of instruction by the Ethics Commission after initially voting on a resolution that would have had the city pay for his legal defense for another case. Later in the meeting, he withdrew his vote.
South Miami Mayor Philip Stoddard was issued a letter of instruction by the Ethics Commission after initially voting on a resolution that would have had the city pay for his legal defense for another case. Later in the meeting, he withdrew his vote. Miami Herald Staff

The mayor of South Miami is in trouble again, but only a little bit. On Wednesday, the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics & Public Trust voted to send Philip Stoddard “a strongly worded letter of instruction” after he was found guilty of unintentional conflict of interest when he voted for the city to pay his legal fees. Stoddard said the commission ruled “fairly” and that he initially voted on the advice of the city attorney.

This latest trouble with the Ethics Commission is related to an earlier case in which Stoddard twice prevented lobbyist Stephen Cody from speaking during public comment, once at a January commission meeting and again in February. Stoddard demanded Cody register to speak as a lobbyist first, per the city code. However Cody said he intended to speak in a personal capacity about the dismissal of the police chief. The Ethics Commission found Stoddard violated Cody’s “right to be heard” under the county’s Citizens’ Bill of Rights.

Stoddard refused to settle and that case is still pending.

Then, at a meeting in April, Stoddard spoke in favor of a proposal that the city pay for his legal defense associated with the Cody case. That’s what earned him the strongly worded letter.

On April 3, South Miami City Manager Steve Alexander placed an item on the agenda that, if approved by commission vote, would have paid for Stoddard’s legal defense and spared the mayor from having to hire his own attorney. According to the Ethics Commission’s probable cause memo, “Stoddard remained on the dais after the Resolution was introduced and extensively participated in the discussion regarding the Resolution.”

From the dais, Stoddard explained he wanted attorney Ben Kuehne, who has experience in ethics matters. He even initially voted in favor of the resolution, before turning to the city attorney and asking, “Is this a conflict for me or not?” He then withdrew his vote, and was marked as an abstention.

Stoddard told the Commission on Ethics that he had previously asked City Attorney Thomas Pepe whether his participation in the vote would be a conflict. Pepe advised him that it was not, Stoddard said.

Pepe told the investigators he “may have told him [Stoddard] that there was no voting conflict.”

Cody filed an official complaint to the Ethics Commission regarding the mayor’s conduct at the April meeting.

“Cody has been harassing me one way or another since before the election,” Stoddard said. Cody denied it.

“I have not been harassing Stoddard,” wrote Cody in a statement. “If Stoddard wants to make sure that I or anyone else doesn’t file an ethics complaint, he should stop acting unethically.”

The Commission on Ethics found probable cause that Stoddard’s actions that day violated the county Code of Ethics’ conflict of interest clause, which prohibits an elected official from voting on resolutions where the official “would or might, directly or indirectly, profit or be enhanced by the action of the [board].”

The commission found that the “conflict was eliminated” when the commission re-voted and Stoddard abstained, and wrote that while his participation in the discussion was also a violation, it appeared to be unintentional.

This article has been updated to include a response from Cody and clarify the timeline of events.

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