Not one, but two State Attorney investigations into wrongdoing at Village Hall. The report on the first is scathing and highlights possible duplicity of some of our elected and appointed officials.
Not only is this an embarrassment for our town, but it’s also costly. It will be interesting to learn what comes from the second investigation regarding an Aug. 25 vote to approve a garbage collection rate increase. Stay tuned.
The full report: Monroe County State Attorney Investigative Report
Here is the direct link to the Miami Herald article. In case you are not able to read the article, we have pasted it in its entirety here:
‘Total lack of transparency.’ Keys investigators say ‘strategic plan’ kept vote secret
An investigation by the Florida Keys prosecutor’s office found a government-wide ‘strategic plan’ was hatched in May to keep a high-ranking city employee’s generous severance package out of the public eye before it was approved without discussion by elected officials.
The report, issued this week, concluded that “all parties involved, except the public, clearly knew” that the Islamorada Village Council planned to approve the $185,000 separation agreement for Roget Bryan, the village’s in-house attorney, during a meeting on May 12.
Monroe County State Attorney’s Office investigators wrote in the report that “all parties” includes acting Village Manager Maria Bassett, attorneys with the law firm Weiss Serota Helfman Cole & Bierman, and the five elected members of the council.
The separation agreement was placed on the meeting agenda as “Tab X” with no explanation and no prior public notice. Four of the five council members present voted in favor of the agreement six hours later with no discussion other than praising Bryan for his nine years of service.
But the report said investigators couldn’t find evidence that Islamorada Village Council members violated Florida’s Government in the Sunshine Law that prohibits elected officials from discussing matters that come before them outside of a publicly noticed meeting.
Investigator Roy Bogue wrote in the report:
“In consideration of all of the above, the Office of the State Attorney has not yet identified any violation of Florida statute 286.011, but believes there was a total lack of transparency in the handling of the Separation Agreement between the Islamorada Village of Islands and Roget Bryan and that lack of transparency was part of the ‘Strategic Plan’ devised by Weiss Serota Helfman Cole & Bierman, P.L, Maria Bassett, the Acting Village Manager and the Islamorada City Council, to keep the public uninformed of the Separation Agreement by failing to put it on the May 12th Council Meeting Agenda.”
Florida Sunshine Law violations are tough to investigate because of the difficulty in proving what officials did or did not discuss behind closed doors.
And this case was extra difficult because John Quick, an attorney with Weiss Serota serving as interim village attorney, advised council members not to voluntarily speak to investigators, Monroe County State Attorney Dennis Ward said Tuesday. “The problem is, how are you going to prove a sunshine violation if you can’t get anyone to talk,” he said.
Roget Bryan announced his resignation from his position as attorney for the Village of Islamorada on May 12, 2022. Florida League of Cities Only one councilman, Henry Rosenthal, ended up speaking with investigators. He said he thought he was only voting on Bryan’s resignation that day, not the severance deal.
During a June meeting, Rosenthal told his colleagues he regretted his vote because he misunderstood everything it entailed. He unsuccessfully lobbied the other council members for a re-vote. Rosenthal also told investigators that he didn’t discuss Bryan’s resignation or separation package with any of his colleagues outside of the meeting, according to the report.
Quick said in a statement to the Miami Herald/FLKeysNews.com that he’s happy with the outcome of the investigation, but he criticized the State Attorney’s Office for including “a gratuitous statement” about a coordinated plan to draft Bryan’s agreement in advance of the vote. “Simply put, this did not occur,” Quick said. “Instead, as reflected in the substantive portions of the report and in the recommendation to ‘close this inquiry with no further action at this time,’ the village acted at all times in compliance with the law.”
None of the five village council members responded to requests for comment for this story. The council remains under investigation for potential Sunshine Law violations regarding an Aug. 25 vote to approve a garbage collection rate increase, Ward said Tuesday.
SEXUAL MISCONDUCT ALLEGATIONS
The report mentioned publicly for the first time allegations from two employees that Bryan was engaging in inappropriate behavior with his legal secretary in the office. One employee told State Attorney’s Office investigators during their probe that she caught Bryan rushing to put his clothes back on when she opened his office door to deliver documents one day in 2020.
The legal secretary was also in the office, hurriedly adjusting her clothes, the report states: According to the prosecutor’s report: “As she opened the office door, she saw Mr. Bryan at the door and he appeared to be disheveled and was fixing his belt and zipping his trousers. She said that this was totally out of character from Mr. Bryan’s normal neat and tidy appearance.
Mr. Bryan took the papers from her and acted upset that he was being disturbed.” On April 27, Ty Harris, who resigned over the summer from his position of village planning director, submitted results from a polygraph test to which he submitted to answer questions about also seeing Bryan and Rodriguez “in a compromised position.”
Legal secretary Eileen Rodriguez also resigned in May with a severance package — $21,325. Bassett, the acting village manager, said she, not the council, approved the package. Neither Bryan nor Rodriguez responded to questions for this story.
On May 5, Alison Smith, another Weiss Serota lawyer, emailed copies of both Bryan’s and Rodriguez’s separation agreements to each council member and Bassett, Bogue said in the report.
On May 12, the day the council voted on the city attorney’s agreement, Bryan and a Weiss Serota attorney sent a memo to council members recommending that they approve the severance deal, “with Bryan ultimately enriching himself on approval,” Bogue wrote.
With the above in mind, there are ethical questions as to Bryan recommending approval of the agreement,” the investigator stated.
The vote was taken hours after the council members received that memo. Bryan told the council he was resigning, citing “external political dynamics” and alleging “personal attacks on my name, my character, reputation, integrity and, most egregiously, my family.”
After praising Bryan’s tenure with the village, the council quickly voted to accept his resignation and separation package. “The course of events and outside counsel[’s billing records gives the appearance that all council members were aware of this non-agenda item and circumstances surrounding it and voted on it regardless,” Bogue wrote.
Bassett on Tuesday issued a statement to the Miami Herald and Florida Keys News lambasting the report, saying she was never contacted by investigators. She demanded a “correction and retraction by State Attorney Dennis Ward’s Office, and I demand an apology for attempts to damage me through assertions of questionable ethics and professionalism on my part.”
Bassett acknowledged hearing about the sexual misconduct allegations against Bryan, but said: “As acting village manager, I had no authority nor responsibility to address the allegations and accusations.”