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Ethics board case against Manatee ex-commissioner Brown moves forward

MANATEE — The state ethics commission has found probable cause that former Manatee County Commissioner Gwen Brown used her position for personal gain.

Brown used “county employees, copy machines, computers, e-mail and mail couriers to assist with her outside employment, campaign and tenant evictions” from 2008 to early this year, according to a release Wednesday from the Florida Commission on Ethics.

The ethics commission has ordered a public hearing on the alleged violations.

Brown, who was defeated in the August primary by current District 2 Commissioner Michael Gallen, faces a maximum $10,000 fine and public censure if violations are confirmed in the hearing before an administrative law judge.

Brown could opt for a settlement with an ethics commission advocate, commission spokeswoman Kerri Stillman said, but the end of her tenure “doesn’t preclude us from continuing.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Brown declined comment until speaking with her attorney.

“It’s old news,” she said.

Although Brown has apologized to staff members and reimbursed the county, she explained the use of county staff and resources to ethics commission investigators by saying her work as a commissioner and professor were intertwined. “I wasn’t doing the activities ... as Gwen Brown the person, or the professor,” she told investigators. “I was doing it as a part of Gwen Brown the commissioner and trying to change some of the things that were happening in the community.”

The ethics complaint, filed April 26 by Bradenton resident Shannon Barfield, came on the heels of an Manatee County internal investigation completed Feb. 10. The complaint was notarized by Linda C. Gallen, Michael Gallen’s mother.The ethics commission only investigates public officials after receiving a sworn complaint. The investigation results are confidential until the report is official.

Stillman said a final hearing, with Brown present, was held Friday in Tallahasee.

On Jan. 15, the county clerk’s internal audit department received an anonymous complaint — Brown later said it was from Commissioner Donna Hayes — alleging that Brown was using county staff to type, e-mail and copy documents relating to her job as an adjunct professor at State College of Florida. The documents included syllabi, tests and quizzes.

Brown also instructed an administrative assistant to type eviction notices and copy and mail election documents, the commission found.

Brown reimbursed the county $1,800, even though the value of the services and equipment she misused was placed at $812 by the county’s internal report.

The ethics commission failed to find probable cause of a secondary complaint that Brown used county resources to write and copy her doctoral thesis while she was a student at Nova University.

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