STATE OF FLORIDA
COMMISSION ON ETHICS
In re ROBERT HILL, )
Respondent. ) Complaint No. 90-32
RECOMMENDED PUBLIC REPORT OF HEARING OFFICER
This matter was initiated upon the filing of a complaint by Laban Bontrager, who alleged that the Respondent, Robert Hill, violated Section 112.313(6), Florida Statutes, of the Code of Ethics for Public Officers and Employees. Following a preliminary investigation, the Commission on Ethics found probable cause and ordered a public hearing on the following issue:
Whether the Respondent corruptly misused his official position by having his sister-in-law hired as a teacher of Business Education knowing that she was not qualified.
A public hearing was held on Wednesday, October 31, 1990, in Tallahassee, Florida, before the undersigned member of the Commission on Ethics, who served as Hearing Officer for the Commission. Craig B. Willis, Assistant Attorney General, appeared as Advocate for the Commission; the Respondent was represented by Kenneth L. Hosford, Esquire, and Charles T. "Chip" Collette, Esquire.
At the public hearing the Advocate called the following witnesses: Shirley Bateman, Sheila Shelton, Judy Franklin, Richard Stallworth, Laban Bontrager, Linda Sue Bontrager, Johnette Wahlquist, Herbert Whitaker, and Tommy Dugger. The Respondentcalled the following witnesses: Robert Hill, Winifred Brown, Yvonne Watson, Anthony Anderson, Joe Combs, Michael Wahlquist, and Janna Hill. Lamar Ford also offered sworn testimony, solicited by the Hearing Officer. Various exhibits presented by the parties were received in evidence.
The Advocate and the Respondent both waived the filing of proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law. References to the transcript of the hearing are denoted by the letter "T", followed by the page number; references to the Advocate's and the Respondent's exhibits are made as "AE" and "RE" respectively, followed by the exhibit number and page number, if applicable.
From the evidence presented at the hearing, the undersigned Hearing Officer finds as follows:
1. The Respondent, Robert Hill, took office as Superintendent of Schools for Liberty County in January, 1989, and presently serves in that capacity. T 35.
2. During the period May 22 through June 2, 1989, the Liberty County School District sought applications for the position of Business Education Teacher for Liberty County High School. According to the Job Offering Announcement, applicants must have a four year degree with certification in the area of business education, and provide three written references. AE1.
3. There were three applicants for the position. One of the applicants was Johnette Wahlquist, the Respondent's sister-in-law, his wife's sister. The other two applicants were Traycee Cherry and Twila Sanders. T209.
4. The Respondent consulted the High School Principal, who in turn had consulted the retiring business education teacher, prior to recommending to the School Board that they offer the position to Johnette Wahlquist. T210-212,238.
5. The School Board voted unanimously on June 13, 1989, to accept the Respondent's nomination of Johnette Wahlquist for the position. AE2.
6. There was considerable testimony concerning the Department of Education's certification process for Florida teachers. There are two types of certification possible. A person with a college degree may obtain a general teaching certificate in a specific area. A person who does not have a college degree but who has applicable work experience which can be documented, may obtain a vocational certificate which permits them to teach in that particular area. Generally, an individual with a four year degree would not apply for a vocational certificate because of the extensive documentation involved and the requirement that the individual obtain additional training to work with students. T47,62,66,75-76.
7. Although the Job Offering announcement stated that a four year degree was required with certification in the area of business education, a person without a degree possessing a vocational certification would be eligible to teach business education under Department of Education guidelines. T67. The only way the School District could have filled the position with an individual not having a four year degree would have been if none of the applicants had had four year degrees. T49,67,178-179. Both Twila Sanders and Traycee Cherry had four year degrees. AE4 and AE5.
8. Whether or not Johnette Wahlquist had a four year degree was a topic of conversation among several employees in the School District office. Several employees testified that after seeing Johnette Wahlquist's name on a Department of Education computer printout as having made application for a vocational certificate, they discussed the matter among themselves. T74-75. None of the employees who testified on this issue discussed the matter or its significance with the Respondent, or brought it to his attention in any way. T44,65,87,94-95.
9. On July 19, 1989, a letter signed by a "Johnathon French" appeared in the local newspaper, a weekly paper known as the "Weekly Journal." The letter criticized the Respondent for certain actions taken as Superintendent of Schools, including but not limited to the hiring of unqualified relatives for teaching positions in Liberty County. AE7.
10. School District employee Sheila Shelton saw Laban Bontrager at a wedding on July 22, 1989, and engaged in a casual conversation with him about the topics raised in the "Johnathon French" letter. She informed him that she had seen Johnette Wahlquist's name on a Department of Education computer printout as having applied for a vocational certificate, and that she had concluded that Johnette Wahlquist must not have a four year degree. T71,78.
11. After the letter appeared in the Weekly Journal, the Respondent discovered that the true author of the letter was Laban Bontrager. On July 23, 1989, the Respondent and his wife, Janna, called upon Laban Bontrager and his wife, Linda, at the Bontrager residence. Upon being confronted, Laban Bontrager admitted that he had written the letter in the Weekly Journal. In the discussion which followed, Laban Bontrager indicated that his letter was referring to the hiring of Respondent's sister-in-law, Johnette Wahlquist. T99-100. There was conflicting testimony about whether the Respondent advised Laban Bontrager that Johnette Wahlquist had applied for vocational certification or general teacher certification from the Department of Education. T100,107,113,128,135. Based upon the credibility and demeanor of the witnesses, I find that the Respondent did not tell Laban Bontrager that Johnette Wahlquist had applied for a vocational certificate, but that he did indicate that Johnette Wahlquist had a four year degree in business education from Florida A. & M. University. T143.
12. Convinced that he had erred concerning Johnette Wahlquist's qualifications, Laban Bontrager offered to write a letter of retraction for the newspaper. He also telephoned Johnette Wahlquist following the meeting and apologized to her personally. T103-104.
13. Shortly thereafter, the Respondent had occasion to talk with Johnette Wahlquist, and questioned her as to whether she had a degree from Florida A. & M. University. She responded that she did. T165. Thereafter Johnette Wahlquist forged a diploma and transcript using those of Vanessa Ford as a basis, unbeknownst to Vanessa Ford. T166-169.
14. After fabricating the documents, Johnette Wahlquist left copies of the documents on the Respondent's desk in his office. T169. He was not present when she left them there, but later noticed them. They confirmed what the Respondent believed: that Johnette Wahlquist had a degree from Florida A. & M. University. The Respondent also was impressed by Johnette Wahlquist's supposed grade point average of 3.54. T218.
15. Armed with this evidence of Johnette Wahlquist's qualifications, the Respondent hastened to show it to Laban Bontrager. T218. He left copies of the documents at Laban Bontrager's office on July 26, 1989. T119. After a cursory examination, Laban Bontrager undertook a more extensive investigation of the documents. T104-106. He placed telephone calls to the registrars at Chipola Junior College and Florida A. & M. University. He later travelled to Tallahassee to meet with the registrar at Florida A. & M. He became convinced that the documents were forgeries, and thereupon met with the State Attorney on July 28, 1989. T121-124.
16. As a part of the State Attorney's investigation into the matter, Laban Bontrager agreed to assist the investigator by permitting a secret video tape to be made of his meeting with the Respondent on August 10, 1989. T128. At that time, Laban Bontrager confronted the Respondent with the fact that the documents were forgeries. The Respondent's reaction and ensuing behavior were consistent with that of a person who had just received devastating information.
17. There was substantial evidence that Johnette Wahlquist had taken considerable measures to convince her family that she was enrolled in college, then in an internship at a Tallahassee high school, and, finally, had graduated from college. All of the family members who testified as witnesses, including her husband, were convinced that she had graduated until they learned otherwise as a result of the investigation by the State Attorney's Office.
18. There was conflicting testimony about whether Johnette Wahlquist's diploma was shown to School Board members prior to their vote to hire Johnette Wahlquist on June 13, 1989. Considering the demeanor of the witnesses and the totality of the evidence, however, I find that the document was not forged until sometime after she was hired, and thus did not exist at the time the School Board voted to hire her on June 13, 1989.
19. Under the circumstances, it was reasonable for the Respondent to believe that Johnette Wahlquist had a degree in business education. The Respondent properly processed her application and did not take part in or know about her fraudulent activities until after she was hired by the School Board.
PRIMARY STATUTORY PROVISIONS
Section 112.313(6), Florida Statutes, provides:
MISUSE OF PUBLIC POSITION.--No public officer or employee of an agency shall corruptly use or attempt to use his official position or any property or resource which may be within his trust, or perform his official duties, to secure a special privilege, benefit, or exemption for himself or others. This section shall not be construed to conflict with s. 104.31.
For purposes of this statute, the term "corruptly" is defined by Section 112.312(7), Florida Statutes, as follows:
'Corruptly' means done with a wrongful intent and for the purpose of obtaining, or compensating or receiving compensation for, any benefit resulting from some act or omission of a public servant which is inconsistent with the proper performance of his public duties.
Based on the foregoing findings of fact, the undersigned Hearing Officer recommends that the Commission on Ethics make the following conclusions of law:
1. The Respondent, Robert Hill, as the Superintendent of Schools for Liberty County at all times material to this complaint was a public officer subject to the provisions of the Code of Ethics for Public Officers and Employees contained in Part III, Chapter 112, Florida Statutes. The Respondent is subject to the continuing jurisdiction of the State of Florida Commission on Ethics.
2. With respect to an alleged violation of Section 112.313(6), Florida Statutes, the Advocate must establish by a preponderance of the evidence that:
a. The Respondent was either a public officer or a public employee;
b. The Respondent used or attempted to use his official position or property or resources within his trust, or performed his official duties.
c. The Respondent's actions were done with an intent to secure a special privilege, benefit, or exemption for himself or others; and
d. The Respondent's actions were done "corruptly," that is,
(1) done with a wrongful intent, and
(2) done for the purpose of benefiting himself or another from some act or omission which was inconsistent with the proper performance of public duties.
3. As Superintendent of Schools, the Respondent used his public position and performed his official duties when he recommended that the School Board hire Johnette Wahlquist.
4. Through being hired into a position for which she was not qualified, Johnette Wahlquist received a special privilege or benefit, that is, one to which she was not entitled.
5. However, in order to prove that the Respondent acted corruptly, it would have to be established by a preponderance of the evidence that, at the time the Respondent recommended to the School Board that Johnette Wahlquist be hired as the Business Education teacher, he knew she did not have the necessary qualifications. Without knowledge of her lack of qualifications, it cannot be shown that the Respondent intended to secure a special privilege or benefit for her or that he acted for the purpose of benefiting her.
6. The evidence clearly established that the Respondent did not know that his sister-in-law, Johnette Wahlquist, did not possess the necessary qualifications to hold the position of Business Education Teacher in the Liberty County schools. Without this knowledge, there is no way to find that the Respondent acted corruptly in recommending to the School Board that she be hired for the position.
7. Accordingly, the Respondent did not violate Section 112.313(6), Florida Statutes, by corruptly using his official position as Superintendent of Schools for Liberty County to hire his sister-in-law, Johnette Wahlquist, for the position of Business Education Teacher, knowing that she was unqualified to hold the position.
Based on the foregoing findings of fact and conclusions of law, the undersigned Hearing Officer recommends that the Commission on Ethics enter a final order and public report finding that the Respondent, Robert Hill, did not violate Section 112.313(6), Florida Statutes, through using his official position as Superintendent of Schools for Liberty County to recommend the hiring of his sister-in-law, Johnette Wahlquist, for the position of Business Education Teacher, knowing that she was unqualified to hold the position as alleged.
ENTERED and respectfully submitted this 7th day of January, 1991.
Stephen N. Zack
Hearing Officer and Member
Commission on Ethics
Copies furnished to:
Mr. Kenneth L. Hosford, Attorney for Respondent
Mr. Charles T. "Chip" Collette, Attorney for Respondent
Mr. Craig B. Willis, Commission Advocate