Little guys pay big for filing lapse

A Valrico man is among people who get no slack from the state in fines levied over volunteer requirements.

Published June 4, 2005

TALLAHASSEE - Steven Mowery could pay a high price for a little volunteer work.

The Valrico man faces a fine of up to $1,500 for failing to file a one-page financial disclosure form that about 40,000 political appointees and public employees must submit to the state each year.

The overwhelming majority of appointees serve without pay and file the forms on time as required. But dozens do not, and they face financial consequences.

The Legislature, which writes the ethics laws, set the fine a few years ago after deciding that too many officials were not filing the forms. The fine is $25 for each day past the due date, to a maximum of $1,500. Lawmakers this spring rejected a proposal to cap fines at $300.

Mowery, 48, a civilian in the systems department of U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, said he has traveled in recent years to Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait and elsewhere. When he wasn't putting up sandbags near Baghdad, Mowery volunteered as a board member on the Buckhorn Estate Special Taxing District in Hillsborough County. The state Commission on Ethics says that Mowery first failed to file the form last year as required and that he later submitted the wrong form. All other members of the board submitted the form on time, the commission said. The fines being levied now are for violations that occurred last year.

Mowery appealed his $1,500 fine and pleaded for mercy before the commission Thursday, citing unusual circumstances.

"For the past couple of years, I have been focused on supporting the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, continually traveling back and forth to Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar," Mowery testified.

He said he was in Kuwait last June when the Hillsborough County supervisor of elections office sent him a certified letter reminding him to file the form. He thinks his son saw the letter while playing soccer in the front yard and simply ignored it.

"I'd be willing to bet that certified letter had been sitting there for a couple of weeks while I was deployed. I don't know. I can't say," Mowery testified. "This is an incredible financial burden for someone who's doing volunteer community work."

After listening to Mowery's pleas, a divided ethics commission could not reach a consensus on how big a fine Mowery should pay, so it postponed action until its next meeting, July 21. The agency's staff said the version of events Mowery gave Thursday differed from one he provided earlier in a letter.

"Under the law, we don't have the prerogative to say, "That's a very sad story."'

-JOEL GUSTAFSON, ethics commission chairman

"He's shown up today with a whole different case that we don't have any background on," said Bonnie Williams, the commission's executive director.

The law allows the commission to waive fines for narrowly defined "unusual circumstances," but commission members say most appeals on that basis don't qualify.

"Under the law, we don't have the prerogative to say, "That's a very sad story,"' said ethics commission Chairman Joel Gustafson, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer. "We try to be consistent. It's a judgment call."

In another case, the ethics commission fined Deborah Coyle, a school principal in Tampa, $225 for filing her form nine days late. Coyle said she was too busy to get to the post office to pick up a letter telling her she was delinquent.

"As a principal, your department has really discouraged my faith in the system and ethics," Coyle wrote.

Another Tampa principal, Tricia McManus, had her fine reduced by half, to $750, after telling the state there was no proof she ever got the form.

McManus later filed one and sent the ethics commission a letter, stating: "As a public servant and someone who devotes 50-60 hours per week to public education, I am discouraged that a fine would be placed on me."

Cheryl Long, a member of the Redington Shores planning board had her fine cut to $750 after producing records showing she was in Russia adopting a child last June when a delinquency notice was sent to her. Long said her income for 2003 was less than $2,000, and the ethics commission praised Long for her "cooperation and straightforwardness."

Ethics commission member John Linstroth of West Palm Beach said many fines were too high and he's troubled that some people got fines reduced after writing a convincing letter. He said the system of allowing people to file affidavits is "totally dishonest."

Linstroth noted that the chairman of the Palm Beach County School Board was fined $1,000 last fall for voting to steer contracts to an architecture firm insured by his company.

--Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com