Ethics Commission Clears Palm Coast’s Tony Capela of Corruption or Favoritism in City Work
FlaglerLive | July 31, 2013
The Florida Ethics Commission has dismissed a whistleblower’s complaint against Palm Coast Public Works Superintendent Tony Capela, 13 months after dismissing related complaints against City Manager Jim landon and Human Resources Director Wendy Cullen.
The commission concluded last week, in a ruling made public today, that while ex-Palm Coast employee Terry Geigert’s complaints were not groundless, none of the issues rose to the level of corruption. Nor was she wrongfully fired. The findings reveal a city administration where Capela operated imperiously with his supervisors’ knowledge, but that he could not be blamed for negligent supervision, or the absence of clear policies regarding certain financial matters. A serious allegation that he favored one company over others could not be proved. And the commission investigator accepted Capela’s explanation surrounding a trip to Fort Lauderdale, when he rented a boat and helped remodel a friend’s condo when he was supposed to be attending a city conference.
Capela has been working for Palm Coast as street superintendent since 2006. RoadTek incorporated in Florida in 2008 as a company that does patchwork, guardrails and road sign installation. It’s owned by Rui Ferreira, a friend of Capela’s. Capela and Ferreira had previously worked together at a construction company in Massachusetts. Geigert alleged that Capela “ensured that RoadTek received all of the city’s contract work by setting contract limits below $15,000 so that no bidding by other contractors was required,” ethics commission papers state, though Geigert said there was no reason to hire RoadTek since city workers could do the same job.
In 2008 Capela was assigned more responsibilities, including swales work. The city’s swales repair teams were bypassed in many projects in favor of RoadTek, starting in March 2008. RoadTek got 11 work orders between March and August 2008, with City Public Works Director Richard Adams reviewing each order, and saying there was “no way” Capela could manipulate the orders to show favoritism. Adams and Capela say RoadTek got most of the contracts because it did the better work, and that, while RoadTek used city equipment—with Adams’s and Landon’s approval—other companies did, too.
The commission’s investigation by Melody Hadley confirmed through City Inspector Gary Lima that RoadTek work was, in fact, not inspected by the city—and that Capela instructed Kevin Howell, an inspector, to just drive by RoadTek projects and sign off on them. But Lima and Landon told investigators that the issue was subsequently addressed, and that RoadTek started being inspected, “even though there was nothing intentionally being done wrong.”
Geigert claimed RoadTek was allowed to store its equipment on city property, which is not allowed. She substantiated the allegation with photographs. Capela “denied knowledge of RoadTek equipment being stored on city property and contends he did not give permission for it to happen,” the ethics commission’s advocate’s report states.
“Of all the issues brought forth by [Geigert],” the advocate concluded, “it appears the lack of inspections has the most merit. However, the element of corrupt intent is lacking because proof that [Capela]’s actions were inconsistent with the proper performance of his public duties is needed. It appears city management was complacent and/or in agreement with [Capela]’s actions.”
Fifteen months after Ferreira started working with Capela, Capela sold his house to Ferreira for cash. The ethics commission ruled that since the sale was from Capela to Ferreira, rather than from Capela to RoadTek, there was no conflict or violation. The commission also cites a Palm Coast investigation of the sale that cleared Capela of wrongdoing.
Geigert alleged she was retaliated against for blowing the whistle on Capela and was “set up to fail.” Capela, she claims, told her he could make up a lie to get her fired, Hadley’s report states. Her supervisor said she had a poor work ethics and was the subject of four written disciplinary actions before she was moved to a different department, whose supervisor issued one disciplinary action. Geigert was again transferred to a department where, as it turned out, Geigert’s computer skills were not what she had claimed they’d be. She was transferred to a concrete crew, :”where she failed again,” the advocate’s report states. She was then fired. Landon and Adams signed off on the firing, citing poor work.
Geigert blew the whistle on Capela’s practice of letting cash generated by the sale of city scrap metal to be used for parties and barbecues for employees, rather than having it deposited by the city’s finance department, though there’s no written policy on the matter, and Capela’s superiors had let the practice go on. But that practice had predated Capela’s arrival at the city. Adams eventually had Capela change the practice and follow city procedure, and the money was deposited through the finance department.
Geigert complained that Capela hired a friend, Renee Shevlin, among 22 candidates for public works chief operator, even though others were more qualified. The job required a bachelor’s degree and city government experience. Shevlin, who’d worked 25 years in a grocery store, had neither. Capela advocated for her, citing her work ethic.
“While it is evident that [Capela] has a preference for Shevlin,” the advocate’s report concludes, “it is also evident that pushing for Shevlin to get the position was not done with corrupt intent. It appears [Capela]’s intent was to select an individual who could ‘hit the ground running’ and thus benefit Public Works. Adams endorsed the choice.
Geigert turned over to investigators photographs taken with a city-owned digital camera that appeared to show Capela using a boat in Fort Lauderdale, and helping Shevlin remodel a condo, when Capela was supposed to be attending a conference for the city. Capela told investigators he personally rented the boat and used it after his conference duties. The advocate agreed.
So Hadley recommended against finding probable cause of corruption on any charges raised by Geigert, or that she was unfairly fired.