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West Orange Times & Observer Wednesday, Jul. 29, 2020 1 year ago

Commissioner faces scrutiny following clerical error

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The mistake has cost Orange County Commissioner Betsy VanderLey a contract with an engineering firm and sparked an ethics complaint.
by: Danielle Hendrix Former Associate Editor

An engineering firm has cut ties with Orange County Commissioner Betsy VanderLey’s business following her revelation of a “clerical error” in her financial reporting.

Engineering firm DRMP Inc. on July 27 announced it has ended its business relationship with VanderLey’s consulting firm, The Continuum Collaborative LLC. According to DRMP’s statement, the decision was mutual.

“This decision is based on the recent concerns raised in what appears to be a conflict of interest with a client in Central Florida,” DRMP representatives wrote. “As a result, Betsy VanderLey canceled her month-to-month rental lease for office space at DRMP and moved out of her physical office.”

In an email to constituents Monday, July 20, VanderLey — who represents District 1 — publicly announced her error in reporting. She wrote she submits her financial reports quarterly to the county (Form 6) and annually to the state (Form 8B) to ensure she isn’t being compensated by anyone who may benefit from her vote as a county commissioner.

VanderLey wrote she recently discovered the same clerical error of not including her customer’s name on the Form 6 on each of those reports. She added she did include the name on the Form 8B to declare the conflict. The documents have been amended.

“In that financial disclosure report, there’s a section that basically says, ‘What’s your secondary source of income?’” VanderLey said. “I misunderstood it, and I took that to mean that my company is my secondary source of income to my salary as a commissioner. What … I misunderstood was that they wanted to know where my gross revenue comes from for my company — in other words, who are my clients?”

“This is an intentional attempt to distract from my record of accomplishments for the district and work on behalf of our residents. I’m proud of my record of accomplishments as District 1 commissioner and have worked hard to earn the trust of our neighbors.” — Commissioner Betsy VanderLey

DRMP does some engineering work for the county and the Central Florida Expressway Authority, of which VanderLey also is a board member. She said her work with DRMP was for its federal — not local — clients, adding that she had added a clause to their contract specifying that she wouldn’t work on business-development efforts in Orange, Seminole, Lake or Osceola counties.

Prior to DRMP announcing it had cut ties with VanderLey’s business, Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings called for VanderLey to resign from the CFX Board. 

“This would resolve the potential for future conflicts of interest, or the appearance of conflicts of interest, related to her consulting business and the business of the Expressway Authority,” Demings said in a statement. 

VanderLey, though, believes Demings’ statement is “completely unwarranted and disappointing” because she has followed what the state prescribes to avoid a conflict.

“Over three years, there have been thousands of votes and — for each of the 11 times in question — I abstained from voting and filed the appropriate disclosure paperwork,” she said. “These allegations are pure politics, initiated by the consultants of my opponent. I am disappointed the mayor would weigh in on what is obviously a political ploy.”

VanderLey said it was not an error in ethics, citing her disclosures of any conflicts of interest and adding that she recused herself from such votes.

However, the error sparked an ethics complaint. Steven Meyers — cofounder of local political consulting firm Meyers & Washington — filed the complaint against VanderLey July 22, requesting a formal investigation by the Florida Commission on Ethics. Meyers & Washington also is the firm working on the campaign for VanderLey’s challenger, Nicole Wilson, in the upcoming District 1 race. Wilson — an environmental-law attorney — and VanderLey will face off in the Aug. 18 primary election.

In the complaint, Meyers wrote that VanderLey failed to disclose to the County Commission that she had received substantial income from DRMP. The ethics complaint maintains that as a member of the CFX board, VanderLey also had a statutory obligation to disclose her financial dealings with DRMP.

Additionally, Meyers wrote, he was concerned about the District 1 race being moved to August as a result of Hannah Burns filing as a write-in candidate. Burns is the stepdaughter of former county commissioner Scott Boyd, a friend and supporter of VanderLey’s.

“Sadly, in this day and age of hardball politics, it is an unfortunate but common practice during elections for those with highly partisan agendas to mislead voters,” VanderLey said. “This is an intentional attempt to distract from my record of accomplishments for the district and work on behalf of our residents. I’m proud of my record of accomplishments as District 1 commissioner and have worked hard to earn the trust of our neighbors. With the cancellation of the DRMP contract, we can get back to discussing what is most important: the future of our community.”

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Danielle Hendrix was an associate editor for the West Orange Times & Observer, Southwest Orange Observer and OrangeObserver.com.

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