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Two Islamorada officials to face state ethics board — the same day

Islamorada Mayor Joseph 'Buddy' Pinder (L) and Islamorada Village Council Member Henry Rosenthal (R).
Islamorada Village Council
Islamorada Mayor Joseph 'Buddy' Pinder (L) and Islamorada Village Council Member Henry Rosenthal (R).

Two members of the Islamorada village council — Mayor Buddy Pinder and Council member Henry Rosenthal — are set to face the Florida Commission on Ethics for separate complaints against them.

Both investigations will likely wrap up April 19 when the commission issues its final rulings.

Rosenthal has entered into a settlement deal with ethics investigators. Ethics commission documents show that in exchange for Rosenthal admitting to violating state law, the investigator is recommending that the commission issue $2,500 in fines and that Gov. Ron DeSantis release an executive order publicly reprimanding Rosenthal.

Pinder had three separate allegations against him in the complaint; only one was investigated. The ethics investigator on Pinder's case is recommending that the commission find no probable cause he violated state laws.

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Ethics commissioners in both cases could choose to accept the recommendations or reject them and impose different penalties.

Rosenthal’s case

In Rosenthal’s case, the investigator recommends the commission find probable cause he violated two state statutes by using his position in public office to obtain disproportionate benefits for himself and another person.

The complaint, filed by former village mayor Deborah Gillis, alleges that Rosenthal was attempting to change a village zoning code so that he could operate a theater with food service out of church property he hoped to purchase.

Gillis, who ran against Rosenthal for a council seat in 2022, declined to comment on the complaint when reached by phone by WLRN.

“The one person that came close to beating me is the one that initiated the charges,” Rosenthal told WLRN in a telephone interview. “I entered the political arena not knowing the downsides.”

The complaint also alleges that Rosenthal was working with the then Development Director Dan Gulizio to fast track the process, promising profits to a local businessman, John Cioffi, who was considering joining the purchase deal.

Gulizio and Cioffi did not respond to email or phone requests for comment.

The complaint noted that the Village Manager at the time, Ted Yates, was considering firing Gulizio. Rosenthal allegedly threatened to fire Yates as retaliation.

“I deny the charges,” Rosenthal said. “For me to admit to something in order to save $50,000 in legal fees seemed to be the wisest thing to do.”

The investigation report includes records showing an email where Rosenthal states he is “seeking approval of amendments of the Village code of Ordinances for the Island Christian Church property.”

Gulizio was let go from his position in late May last year, according to a termination letter signed by Yates.

The investigation report also includes a memorandum showing Rosenthal and another council member raising questions about Yates’ employment contract and the possibility of terminating it after Yates fired Gulizio.

Then, last July 6, the council voted 3-2 to terminate Yates’ contract.

Rosenthal calls the complaint "bogus."

“That doesn’t represent me at all,” Rosenthal said. “I’ve been a community supporter and I will continue to be.”

Mayor Pinder’s case

The complaint against Pinder involves three separate allegations. First, that he did not fully or accurately complete financial disclosure forms for 2021 and 2022 by not including his village council salary. Second, that Pinder used public funds for his election campaign by having on-the-clock Village employees contribute to a video thanking voters. And finally, that Pinder allegedly solicited a $7,000 election donation for non-public disclosure from the person who filed the complaint, Cheryl Meads.

Meads, who currently serves as a governing board member for the South Florida Water Management District, said she filed the complaint through her work as a board member of a community watchdog group called the Islamorada Community Alliance.

“That organization focuses on good government in Islamorada, integrity in government and sustainability of the community and rights of the residents,” Meads said.

Only the second allegation rose to the level of requiring an investigation, according to Ethics commission documents. That’s because public salaries aren’t required on his financial disclosures and the complaint did not indicate that Pinder was attempting to use his official position when requesting the $7,000 donation. There was no indication that Pinder was asking for the money to influence his vote or official action in the future, according to the ethics documents.

Meads said she was told by the ethics investigator that the donation solicitation should have been reported to the Florida Elections Commission or that the statute of limitations for the alleged crime has run out.

Pinder declined to comment on the specifics of the case.

The investigation notes that a video with the caption “Thank you all for your support” was created by a social media contractor, Carlos Garcia, and uploaded to the Buddy Pinder for Islamorada Village Council Facebook page on November 3, 2020.

Garcia declined to comment on the case.

The contractor was not a village contract employee at the time of shooting the video and Pinder testified that he personally compensated the contractor. The contractor then became a contract employee in 2021 when the company Attention Media, LLC was hired to develop a social media outreach pilot program for the village government.

A video with a similar premise to the 2020 video was filmed on Nov. 13, 2022, that shows Pinder riding on a three-wheeled bike through Founders Park with campaign signs and high-fiving a park attendant. He testified that the purpose of the video — titled “Thank you Islamorada” — was to thank community members after the campaign ended and he was re-elected.

“If you watch Islamorada closely, you know that those council seats are two-year terms. If you’re an elected official, in essence you’re always campaigning,” Meads said.

The park attendant shown in the video could not be reached by the investigator but an approved timesheet obtained by the investigator showed she worked during the period that Pinder testified the video was shot. Pinder testified that there was no discussion with the park attendant or her supervisor about the video. Garcia, the social media contractor, testified that he couldn’t recall whether he asked the park attendant to participate or it was spontaneous.

The investigator in that case is recommending that the commission not find Pinder in violation of state law because he was not a candidate running for office at the time the 2022 video was shot and released on social media.

Julia Cooper reports on all things Florida Keys and South Dade for WLRN.
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