State Politics

Panel rejects delay in David Rivera case, asks judge to set penalties for ethics violation

FILE--Former congressman David Rivera is shown in this Oct. 22, 2012 file photo.
FILE--Former congressman David Rivera is shown in this Oct. 22, 2012 file photo. EL NUEVO HERALD STAFF

Faced with an exodus of his legal team, David Rivera failed to delay a Florida Commission on Ethics case that found he corruptly managed taxpayer money and his own financial disclosure forms as a state legislator.

But on Friday, when told of his latest maneuver in the two-year-old case, the Commission unanimously rejected further delay. It recommended that administrative law judge David Watkins determine penalties for the violations by Rivera, who appeared late at the hearing and missed the discussion on his case.

“It’s insulting how this has happened,” Commission on Ethics Vice Chair Stanley Weston said.

“Denying this sends a message that we’re over it,” said Commission on Ethics board member Matthew Carlucci.

Rivera, who served in the state House from 2002-2010, was found in violation of seven instances of Florida’s Code of Ethics for Public Officers and Employees while he served in the Legislature.

Judge Watkins found that Rivera had accepted state reimbursement for travel already paid for by campaign accounts — thereby double-billing taxpayers — and that Rivera failed to properly disclose his income.

Friday’s case came just two days after his friend and confidante, Ana Alliegro, was sentenced in a federal campaign-finance scheme that, she told prosecutors, was masterminded by Rivera in 2012 when he served his first and only term as a congressman. Rivera, outed as an “unindicted” co-conspirator, remains under federal investigation.

In Rivera’s two-year-old state ethics case, two of Rivera’s lawyers quit representing him in July. A third quit in August.

Rivera failed to hire an attorney until the day before the commission was set to hear the case. So he tried to file for a delay.

On Thursday, at 4:43 p.m., Tallahassee attorney Leonard Collins filed a motion for continuance that had missed the deadline for Friday’s meeting. Collins said he was hired that day, Thursday, to make the motion.

“(Rivera) respectfully requests a continuance so that his counsel can carry out the above referenced review of the record and necessary legal research in order to properly prepare to addressed these issues before the Florida Commission on Ethics,” Collins wrote in the motion.

Collins said the ethics commission was breaking its own rules and the recommendation of its own attorney, who stipulated that the Florida House should determine penalties — not Judge Watkins. Either way, the House — filled with Rivera friends and allies — is supposed to determined Rivera’s penalty.

But commission members weren’t hearing it. Some seemed gobsmacked by the request. The vote was quick and the board went ahead with the rest of the agenda. The Rivera case, which had been moved up on the agenda on Friday morning, is headed to Watkins.

Thirty minutes after the vote, however, Collins appeared. He wasn’t too pleased. “They took it out of order,” said Collins, who works at the Broad and Cassel law firm. “This was No. 5 on the docket.”

Though they took the case earlier than scheduled, commissioners said Collins should have been there.

“If this was so important, I can’t see why he can’t be here,” Weston said.

After Collins arrived, he remained sitting in the audience and watched a full slate of unrelated cases, hoping to make yet another last-minute appeal. “They know they’re wrong,” he said.

Joining him minutes later in the audience was Rivera.

“I can understand why if someone is here they would take (a case) out of order,” Rivera said, who came to the hearing after seeing on TV that his case was already up. “What I don’t understand is why they would do it if someone’s not here.”

Collins, the attorney, interrupted.

“I think we may come up,” he said. Asked how he would convince the commission to take it up again, Collins demurred, saying only “I don’t know.”

During a five-minute break, Commission Chair Linda McKee Robison was asked if the board would reconsider the case and she shook her head.

It had been a full meeting. Midway through, the Commission awarded former Gov. Reubin Askew, who died in March, with an award honoring him for his Sunshine Amendment. Ironically, among one of the many of the Sunshine Law’s landmark open record provisions is the requirement that state officials provide financial disclosures, the rule that Rivera has been found to have violated.

“A public office is a public trust,” Askew’s widow, Donna Lou, told the commission, as Rivera sat next to his lawyer, Collins.

As Robison made a motion to adjourn the meeting, Collins rushed to the podium.

“I would ask you that you reconsider,” Collins said, before making a case for Rivera. Robison interrupted him.

“We have heard the matter, we have the resolved the matter, we’re not going to bring it up again,” Robison said.

Not satisfied, after the gavel came down, Rivera walked up to the dais as everyone was leaving and asked Robison and the Commission’s executive director, Virlindia Doss, why his case was brought up first.

“We were trying to accommodate Mrs. Askew, who is elderly and frail,” Doss said.

“But she wasn’t here when you took us out of order,” Rivera said.

“No, we thought your matter might take a long time so we wanted to take it up first and give it the time it deserved, while not requiring Mrs. Askew to wait around,” Doss told Rivera.

“But she got here later,” Rivera said.

“I understand,” Doss said as Collins gently pulled Rivera to leave.

Asked if he was happy with Doss’ explanation, Rivera said “I need to speak to him privately,” pointing to Collins.

Rivera wasn’t talking to reporters. Earlier in the meeting, Rivera was asked how he is paying for his ever-changing legal team. “Email me,” he replied.

When the reporter asked why he can’t respond verbally, Rivera said: “Do you have a problem emailing me?”

When the reporter pointed out that he was right there and could easily respond, Rivera said, again, ‘Email me.”

Why?

“So I know you won’t misquote me,” Rivera said, who came in fourth in the August Republican primary where he was trying to regain his congressionall seat.

Rivera said he wasn’t reassured that the interview was being recorded.

“Are you going to give me the tape recorder so I can take it back to Miami?”

No, but the reporter said he could email him the audio.

No dice.

“I give you the interview, you give me the tape recorder,” Rivera said.

When told that seemed like an uneven trade, Rivera had only one answer.

“Email me.”

A list of questions — How is he paying for the attorneys? Why did his three other attorneys quit? Did he stop paying them? — were emailed to him minutes later.

“I will consider them,” Rivera said. “I will consider answering them. Your prerogative is to ask the question, my prerogative is to respond.”

Miami Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report

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