ONLINE: Listen to the meeting and the audiotapes of Israel's and Pereira's statements to investigators, and read the full investigative report at SunSentinel.com/BrowardPolitics.
The Florida Commission on Ethics said Wednesday that it had found probable cause to believe Broward Sheriff Scott Israel broke state ethics laws on two counts, by failing to report two gifts from a campaign donor.
At issue were a yacht cruise and a post-election yacht party, both hosted by Orlando-based road builder Robert Pereira of Middlesex Corp., a campaign supporter of the sheriff's.
State ethics prosecutors said Israel should have reported both as gifts. Under state law, he's required to report gifts valued over $100.
The sheriff won't be fined or punished, though. The ethics commission cited his "lack of experience in office'' and "reliance on advice of counsel'' in recommending that no further action be taken.
The sheriff has 14 days to request a hearing, where the ethics commission would make a final determination on his guilt or innocence. Israel will waive his right to the hearing, said Ron Gunzburger, BSO General Counsel.
Ethics commission Chief Advocate Diane Guillemette alleged Israel underpaid for a five-day Bahamas cruise he, his wife and their triplets took aboard Pereira's yacht a year ago, and for a flight aboard Pereira's plane to and from Nassau.
The 160-foot luxury yacht Newvida cruised to the Bahamas and the Exuma islands, and the guests aboard did some snorkeling and fishing and enjoyed free food and drinks, though the sheriff does not drink alcohol.
Israel told the Sun Sentinel last week that he was one of "25 or 26 people'' on board. The investigative documents show that 10 guests were on board, including the five-member Israel family, and the Pereiras. In addition, the crew includes about 11 people, Pereira told investigators.
The sheriff paid Pereira $1,500, or $300 a person, for the cruise. Guillemette said the actual cost of the Israel family trip, based on Pereira's costs, was $5,577.
Guillemette said he also should have reported as a gift a party Pereira threw on his yacht a month after Israel won election last year.
Israel told investigators it had nothing to do with his campaign and was a holiday party, but Pereira told investigators the party, a three-hour Intracoastal Waterway cruise with a live band, alcohol, hors d'oeuvres and fireworks, doubled as a thank-you to the sheriff's campaign supporters.
He allowed Israel to invite as many guests as he wanted, and the sheriff's wife coordinated their invitations, the investigative files say. In all, 15 to 20 of the 38 people on the yacht were Israel's invitees and family.
Guillemette said the party was worth $206.93 a person, based on Pereira's $7,863 total cost.
Israel told state officials that he relied on the advice of Gunzburger, the longtime general counsel for the property appraiser's office at the time, who is the son of County Commissioner Sue Gunzburger.
Gunzburger advised the sheriff that the cruise could be valued at $1,500 based on Carnival's rates. Gunzburger said state law directs officials to value transportation at the rate of a "comparable commercial conveyance.''
He also advised the sheriff that the party aboard the yacht wasn't worth more than $100 and didn't have to be reported.
But Guillemette said Israel accepted the advice even though it didn't "smack of rationality,'' and he is "still responsible for his actions.''
She told the board that she believed "Mr. Israel attempted to turn a blind eye to the actual cost in order that he did not have to report ... that he had taken these rather large gifts on two separate occasions from one particular donor.''
The seven commission members — an eighth recused herself because of a conflict of interest — struggled to come to a decision in a private session Friday, the recording of which is now public record. Some members agonized over marring the sheriff's record, but others were disturbed by the low amount he paid for the yacht trip.
In a written statement Wednesday, the sheriff declared the ruling a victory.
"I feel relieved the entire case was closed by the commission without even having to go through a trial," he said. "I said from the beginning that I followed the law and acted correctly at all times, and this official outcome vindicates my prior statements."
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