Some things aren’t illegal. They might not be technically unethical, either. But they certainly look bad. They don’t pass the smell test, leaving even the Pollyannas among us with arched brows.
The cases often involve politicians who should know better. They carry out their plans despite the whiff of impropriety, hiding behind just enough legal and ethical cover to let them sleep at night.
Many of the controversies boil down to a lack of transparency. Politicians keep their constituents in the dark about a sensitive issue, hoping no one notices what’s happening behind the scenes.
When the ploy comes to light, they’re shocked anyone would take issue. They — or their minions — act aghast anyone would impugn their good character.
The well-worn playbook is unfolding once again, this time in Belleair, a tony enclave in central Pinellas County. A big hat-tip to my Tampa Bay Times colleague Susan Taylor Martin who broke the story a few days ago.
The powerful Doyle family owns a private Belleair golf course and came before the town commission in July seeking approval for the latest phase of their club enhancement. Town commissioner Thomas Kurey voted in favor.
The next day, the patriarch of the Doyle family paid Kurey $1.65 million in cash for his house that borders the golf course. The house was never listed for sale, and the price was the highest ever paid in that immediate area.
Kurey did not think the deal was worth mentioning at the town commission meeting. Nor did the town’s attorney, who knew about the pending home sale.
Instead, Kurey okayed the golf course renovations knowing that he was about to close on a financial deal with one of the course’s owners. That’s a red flag. A big one.
And he knew it, so did the town attorney. They had asked the state’s ethics commission to weigh in on whether he should be allowed to vote on the matter. Beyond the home sale, he was also a member of the Doyles’ golf club and the Doyle family had invited him to fly on a private plane to a golf outing in New York. An official with the ethics commission told Kurey that he had to pay for his share of the flight, but that he could vote on the golf course expansion because he didn’t have an ownership stake in the club and was not a business associate as defined by state law.
That doesn’t mean he should have voted. It only takes a dash of common sense to know he was too closely tied to the family to vote on the golf course renovations. He gave outsiders a reason to think that his vote was financially motivated, even if it wasn’t.
Kurey, the town attorney and the Doyle family may all be honorable, well-meaning pillars of the community. But when you choose not to reveal a close financial relationship before an important vote, it makes it seem, like you are trying to cover up something.
Kurey should have described his relationship with the Doyles during the public meeting and abstained from voting. Some ardent critics might still have wondered if he was in the Doyles’ pocket, but transparency is a powerful shield and a potent disinfectant.
For his part, town attorney David Ottinger told the Times that Kurey had no obligation to disclose a “private transaction that represents no conflict of interest.” Kurey may not have been obligated, but a savvy politician would have known how this would look. He could have headed off the controversy. Instead he kept quiet.
A couple of weeks ago, Ottinger sent a certified letter to a Belleair resident who first noted the home price and timing of the sale on a social media site. He demanded she take down her “false and defamatory” comments and apologize to Kurey.
The letter raises another question: If this was a “private transaction,” why is the town-paid attorney sending threatening letters on Kurey’s behalf? The town commissioner should pay for his own attorney if he wants to attack one of his constituents about a private matter.
This might end up being just one bad decision in an otherwise noble political career. But politicians who want to remain above reproach should embrace openness. Furtive is rarely a good look for an elected official.