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Official will admit his ethical 'mistake'

By BRADY DENNIS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 24, 2002

ZEPHYRHILLS -- City Council member Mike Bussell will pay $500 and admit to twice violating state ethics laws by failing to list a house he owned on financial disclosure forms during campaigns in 1999 and 2000.

Bussell, 60, said he signed the agreement this week, more than two months after the Florida Commission on Ethics found probable cause of wrongdoing.

"I'm glad to have it in the past," Bussell said Thursday. "It boiled down to one question: Did you file the paperwork or not? I said all along that I didn't fill the paperwork out. I made a mistake."

Arnold Dittenber, a longtime Zephyrhills resident who has since moved to Chiefland, said he filed a complaint in August after the St. Petersburg Times reported in April 2001 that Bussell failed during two successive campaigns to list the Lincoln Avenue house on candidate disclosure forms.

He also failed to pay city and county taxes on the property for three consecutive years, a total of more than $2,000, according to county records. He has since surrendered the house to another owner after an unrelated lawsuit.

In June, Bussell voted alongside council members Cathi Compton and Jim Bailey to request a state ethics investigation of City Manager Steve Spina for hiring a computer consultant who was not properly licensed with the state.

After a council workshop July 12 in which Spina agreed to revise the city's purchasing rules, the three council members voted to retract the request, and an ethics complaint never was filed.

Dittenber and his wife, Shirley, said they thought Bussell's actions were hypocritical. That prompted them to file the complaint.

Dittenber said Thursday that he feels vindicated by the settlement.

"I'm very glad he admitted to wrongdoing," he said. "I hope there are no hard feelings. But we proved our point that we didn't have an honest man in there. I think he learned his lesson. I think he owes the council and the city manager an apology. And the people of Zephyrhills; he betrayed them, too."

Pete Peterson, an advocate for the ethics commission who works in the state Attorney General's Office, said earlier this year that $500 and an admission of guilt was a standard settlement for such a case.

Peterson said the fines against Bussell could have been much higher if he fought the charges at a public hearing and lost.

Florida statues state that a failure to make any required disclosures constitutes grounds for disqualification from being on the ballot, impeachment, removal or suspension from office and several other punishments, including a maximum $10,000 civil penalty per allegation.

Bussell said he hopes he can get back to business as usual with the settlement behind him.

"I'm over it," he said. "I'd like to put this behind me and continue with serving the citizens of Zephyrhills."

-- Brady Dennis covers the city of Zephyrhills and crime in east Pasco. To reach him, call (352) 521-5757, ext. 23, or toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6108, then 23. His e-mail address is dennis@sptimes.com.

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