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Tallahassee City Commissioner Calls For Ethics Reforms Following Maddox Trial

A man in a gray suit stands outside speaking into a microphone at a podium.
Valerie Crowder
Tallahassee Mayor Pro Tem Jeremy Matlow calls for ethics reform outside City Hall following a public corruption trial of a former city commissioner on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021.

A former Tallahassee city commissioner’s public corruption trial has sparked calls for ethics reforms inside City Hall.

“We can address the wrongdoing that was uncovered during the trial and do everything within our power to make sure that it never happens again,” said City Commissioner Jeremy Matlow at a press conference Friday, one day after former City Commissioner Scott Maddox was sentenced to five years in federal prison for orchestrating a bribery scheme through his lobbying firm “Governance.”

Matlow is proposing six policy recommendations aimed at making it harder for public officials to abuse their power.

“People are watching the lobbyist influence that’s played out in the news coverage over the last year," Matlow said. "They’re saying ‘Something has got to give.’ So we’re going to bring these ideas to a public meeting.”

Here are Matlow’s six proposals:

  • require all city officials to detail any meetings related to city business that they have with paid lobbyists and report contact logs with anyone paid to influence policy
  • ban anyone convicted of “honest services fraud” from lobbying or attempting to influence city policy 
  • require those who conduct business with the city to register paid lobbyists 
  • give the city's Independent Ethics Board full authority to oversee whistleblower protections 
  • end no-bid contracts and require two public hearings before selling public land
  • expand an existing audit to cover every personnel, contract or policy decision that Maddox influenced while serving on the city commission 

In addition to Maddox, the city’s former development authority director Paige Carter-Smith was sentenced to time behind bars on Thursday. She was sentenced to two years in federal prison.

Carter-Smith was Maddox’s business associate and helped funnel payments from local businesses seeking favorable treatment to Maddox through “Governance.”

Maddox and Carter-Smith pleaded guilty to two counts of “honest services fraud” and one count of “conspiring to interfere with the lawful functioning of the I-R-S.” They were indicted on dozens of counts before entering their guilty pleas.

Valerie Crowder
Scott Maddox's Office

Another of Maddox’s business associates, John Thomas “JT” Burnette, was recently convicted on several counts. His sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 28th.

Acting U.S. Attorney of Florida’s Northern District Jason Coody served as lead investigator in the case, along with other public corruption cases across the region. In a statement, Coody wrote Maddox’s and Carter-Smith’s prison sentences “should serve as a significant deterrent to those who would seek to illegally profit from public service."

Many are counting on local government to also take action to prevent public corruption.

At a recent roundtable meeting that Commissioner Jeremy Matlow held with several government accountability experts, Integrity Florida’s Ben Wilcox described the bribery scheme as “a black eye on this community that’s going to take years to recover,” illustrating the lasting harm public corruption brings to residents’ trust in government.

The meeting helped inform Matlow’s six policy recommendations for ethics reforms. He says he’s counting on the commission taking those up in late fall.

Matlow has scheduled an online public forum to get feedback on the recommendations on Oct. 6.

The first policy recommendation to close the “lobbyist loophole” originated from recommendations brought by the city’s Independent Ethics Boardin May. The board suggests the city amend a local ordinance on lobbying to require all city officials to submit details of every meeting they have with paid lobbyists, including what they discuss. They also recommend city officials disclose a log of all communications with anyone paid to influence policy.

“It doesn't matter what you consider your title — if you’re getting paid to influence government — you need to register,” Matlow said.

At the roundtable discussion, Matlow says he believes members of the Community Redevelopment Agency and the Blueprint Intergovernmental Agency, which both include county officials, should follow the same rules.

Matlow says he also wants that city to pursue a more comprehensive audit that investigates every city decision Maddox influenced between 2012-2018 when the bribery occurred.

“There is no reason why we cannot revisit these decisions,” Matlow said. “And to truly restore the public trust — we must.”

Valerie Crowder hosts and produces state and local newscasts during All Things Considered. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.