If a public official does something irresponsible, is it also unethical?
Not necessarily. Not in Florida, with ethics laws written by the state Legislature.
This point is at the crux of the case of Frank Peterman, the state juvenile justice secretary now facing possible punishment for excessive travel at taxpayer expense. The Ethics Commission has found probable cause that he violated the ethics laws, which means the former St. Petersburg lawmaker faces a full investigation just as his career in state government is ending.
Peterman, 47, took the $120,000 job at DJJ in 2008 and continued to preach at his church in St. Petersburg. He decided the agency needed a satellite office in the city, and that became his workplace much of the time.
He began commuting regularly by air between Tampa and Tallahassee, even after a 2009 edict that restricted trips to "mission critical" travel.
Within 18 months he racked up more than $44,000 in travel bills, more than half of it between those two cities. His parking fees totaled $2,169. Fees for checked baggage: $562.
Gov. Charlie Crist's chief inspector general found much of the travel unjustified, and Peterman paid about $25,000 in restitution to the state treasury. He kept commuting, but he did it less often and he drove.
In a closed-door session last Friday, members of the ethics commission spent a half hour debating whether Peterman's conduct was illegal.
Fort Lauderdale lawyer Susan Maurer, one of the panel's newest members, led the charge against Peterman, noting that he had been warned by Crist's aides to stop flying so much, but he did anyway.
But the assistant attorney general serving as prosecutor in the case recommended no punishment because, she said, Peterman did not act with corrupt intent, as the law requires when a misuse of public position is alleged.
"I don't think the corruption element can be sustained," advocate Diane Guillemette told the commission.
Here's how the law reads: " 'Corruptly' means done with a wrongful intent and for the purpose of obtaining … any benefit resulting from some act or omission of a public servant which is inconsistent with the proper performance of his public duties."
Because Peterman did have a satellite office in St. Pete, and he did work there, the prosecutor said, it can't be proven that Peterman's constant travel was inconsistent with his public duties.
Stupidity is not the same as corruption, in other words.
The lesson for Gov.-elect Rick Scott's recruits is obvious: Move to Tallahassee and travel discreetly.
• • •
Readers are fascinated with how we find stories. So here's the backstory on Peterman.
When state legislators ask agency heads to show up and defend themselves, they are expected to show up. Quickly.
But Peterman began dispatching an assistant rather than show up himself. As a former legislator, he knew better, and a state employee suggested we might want to take a peek at his travel vouchers.
We did, and that's why Peterman is now in hot water.
That's a delicious irony. Had Peterman spent a little more time in the state capital, he could have saved himself a lot of trouble. He took one flight too many to St. Petersburg.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.