- 2014 - January - 13th -
James F. Bailey, Jr.

Stay tuned for more ‘teachable moments’ for politicians

From the publisher: James F. Bailey Jr.

I have watched with great interest the news coverage surrounding New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and what is now being called "Bridgegate."

News commentators keep saying the scandal should be a "teachable moment."

That's so true.

What's "teachable" here is the advice often given to politicians to be careful of your friends because they are more likely to get you into trouble than your enemies.

There's plenty of evidence of that right here in Jacksonville. I'll talk about that in a moment.

By now, surely we all know the story about "Bridgegate."

Christie's deputy chief of staff, Bridget Ann Kelly, directed that multiple lanes leading onto the George Washington Bridge out of Fort Lee, N.J., be closed in September.

The massive traffic tie-up at the world's busiest bridge lasted four days.

The reason that Kelly told David Wildstein, a fellow political pal at the port authority, to muck up the Fort Lee traffic was nothing more than political retribution.

And that will get you into trouble every time.

Kelly's retribution was against Fort Lee's mayor who didn't endorse Christie in the governor's re-election campaign last fall.

Now, Christie, who looked like an Iron Horse steaming to a possible presidential campaign in 2016, looks like a political train wreck. He could face impeachment, which is way beyond embarrassment.

There are reasons it is often people close to the officeholder who make the wheels come off and cause significant political damage.

First and foremost, elected officials with major public responsibilities have a difficult time believing that someone they trust can do something that crosses the line to hurt or embarrass them.

Often, they tend to believe their judgment is infallible, especially when it comes to their friends.

In addition, the officeholders are normally tending to multiple issues and balancing a steady flow of pressures. Keeping an eye on your friends and the people close to you just doesn't reach a priority status.

Take Gov. Rick Scott.

Last month it was reported by The Miami Herald that Scott's chief of staff, Adam Hollingsworth, had misled a previous employer, CSX, when he said on an application that he had graduated from the University of Alabama in 1990.

In fact, Hollingsworth got his degree in 2009.

A former chief of staff to Jacksonville Mayor John Peyton and a member of the Ed Austin administration, Hollingsworth never falsified employment information for the City of Jacksonville.

His mistake was more than a decade earlier at CSX and caused great embarrassment to both Hollingsworth and Scott.

There's no question that the constant media attention around the revelation temporarily disrupted Scott's ability to govern and Hollingsworth's ability to perform his job.

To his credit, Scott has stood by Hollingsworth.

Before the Hollingsworth embarrassment, Scott's previous chief of staff, Steve MacNamara, resigned after he and Scott were bombarded by media reports that MacNamara had steered no-bid contracts to his friends.

In his letter of resignation, MacNamara acknowledged his actions and the news coverage had "begun to interfere with the day-to-day operations of this office."

Acts like these by "friends" slowly chip away at the credibility of the officeholder. They can, in many cases, lead to political death by a thousand cuts.

When he was elected mayor in 2003, Peyton brought one of his closest friends into a top position. Scott Teagle, who had no experience in government, was made Peyton's chief of staff.

Shortly after Teagle departed the mayor's office, he formed ProLogic Consulting Inc., that received more than $350,000 in city business, even though the firm didn't qualify for getting the work as a vendor.

The company received several contracts and became the City's highest paid technology consultant.

At the time, technology consulting contracts were left up to the preference of the Information Technology Department. Its director, Dave Lauer, was appointed by Peyton. Lauer and Teagle had worked together and had been friends for several years.

Peyton said he was unaware of Teagle using his City Hall connections to profit off taxpayers and canceled the contracts.

That controversy, caused by the mayor's friend, was a huge embarrassment and for a while, it threw Peyton and his administration into a tailspin.

And then there is Public Defender Matt Shirk, who hired female "friends" from the Whisky River Bar and Restaurant in St. Johns Town Center.

The Florida Times-Union conducted an extensive investigation into Shirk's actions that includes inappropriate actions with the female employees; an office confrontation by Shirk's wife, Michelle, with one of the females; deletion of public records; and a host of other scandalous allegations.

A public firestorm erupted in Shirk's office that was triggered when he fired the female "friends." Scott appointed Gainesville State Attorney Bill Cervone as special prosecutor to investigate the allegations. Cervone's findings are anticipated soon.

By all indications, unlike the other political embarrassments I've mentioned, Shirk's own personal actions caused his problems.

Shirk's political ambitions are in shambles and his wife has filed for divorce.

Without a doubt, there will be scandals or embarrassments for other politicians that will hit the media soon.

It's not a matter of if we hear of another "teachable moment" but when and what ... and who?

The moral of this column? It is simply to say stay tuned.


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