On Monday, we all learned that County Commissioner Tammy Hall entered a plea deal with federal prosecutors on a wire fraud charge related to embezzling campaign funds for her personal use. She is accused of using over $33,000 in campaign contributions to pay her credit card bills and mortgage.
That is bad enough and has left many scratching their heads as to why a County Commissioner would violate such a basic rule of campaign finance, betraying the trust placed in her by residents of Lee County. This was no accidental accounting error; this was willful use of funds she knew were donated to her campaign for campaign purposes.
What really bothers me is the sudden springing of this news as a done deal this week. Seems she signed a plea deal last Monday, September 16th to plead guilty to one count of wire fraud. This has clearly been in the works for months.
If the feds knew about this well over a year ago – the plea deal refers to a February 2012 interview – why was she allowed to continue serving as a county commissioner? I don’t know when federal prosecutors had the proof that compelled Hall to accept a plea deal. But as soon as they had proof, charges should have been filed so that we, the residents of Lee County would know about them.
Why was she still making decisions affecting residents when she and prosecutors knew that she had violated the law? Worse, she was making critical county decisions AFTER she signed the plea deal.
She signed the plea deal on Monday, September 16. The next morning, she voted on the 2013-2014 county budget that passed 4-1.
If someone is under investigation, that’s one thing, but if prosecutors have prepared charges and are negotiating a plea deal, well, that is long past the time for public knowledge and for her resignation.
While I’d like to consider her years of public service and the good that she has done for Lee County, all I can think about is that she knew she’d cheated, knew she’d been caught, knew she would have to resign, yet she stayed in her seat on the County Commission anyway. That is just as much of a betrayal of the public trust as taking the money in my opinion. And the federal prosecutors made it all possible by keeping the charges under the radar. Shame on all of them!
One of the last things Hall did as commissioner was to move Conservation 2020 funds into the general fund and use them to balance the 2013-2014 county budget. She shares that badge of dishonor with the other three commissioners who voted with her.
The 1996 vote by Lee County residents to voluntarily tax themselves .5 mils to fund the purchase and protection of environmentally critical lands was not a binding referendum, the loophole the commissioners jumped through as they grabbed the $26 million that will be generated this year -- $26 million that taxpayers thought was going to the acquisition and maintenance of environmentally critical land. Surprise! It’s going to be used to balance the budget that commissioner can’t balance without raiding this fund.
Before raiding the fund, they dumped it into the general fund. Since it’s inception, the .5 mils has sat on it’s own line on your tax bill and it’s own line item in the county budget. Now, suddenly, after 17 years, the county commission suddenly realizes that it all should be in the general fund. They have a legal opinion saying so. Apparently their legal advisors for the previous 16 years missed this. Or maybe they were never asked to look at the issue because the commissioners weren’t planning on raiding the fund.
With the Conservation 2020 mil rate folded into the general fund rate and the funds that .5 mils produces folded into the general county funds, I predict it won’t be too many years before Conservation 2020 fades into oblivion. This year, the commission made noises about how they’ll look carefully at the question of 2020 funds next year, no doubt meant to pacify those of us unhappy with the raid. But there will be another budget crisis next year and it will be easier to use the money since it’s already in the general fund.
Unless the people of Lee County push to hold a binding referendum for Conservation 2020, the program could very well stagnate while the County Commission congratulates itself for funding the upkeep of the existing 2020 lands, while raiding the pot of money designated for purchase of new environmentally critical land.
Commissioners have talked about when they want the referendum on the ballot. 2014 - a mid-term election, or 2016 – a presidential election year have been discussed. I was leaning toward the 2016 choice that would presumably see the greater turnout of a presidential election. However, now that I’ve seen the county budget balanced on the back of the Conservation 2020 program, I would like to see county voters make this choice as soon as possible, before the program is diminished any further.