Cape Coral mayor won’t answer questions about Sunshine Law violation
Cape Coral Mayor Joe Coviello has not responded to several WINK News requests for an interview about a civil infraction he faces for violating the Sunshine Law.
The law requires public entities to conduct business in a public forum so that the community can have all the information about how their tax dollars will be spent.
On September 14, a civil infraction was filed against Coviello with the Lee County Clerk of Court. It followed a Florida Department of Law Enforcement Investigation into allegations of bribery and bid tampering by the city manager and city’s business manager and an allegation involving quid pro quo conversations conducted by the Mayor.
No other criminal or civil charges against any other members of Cape Coral city staff have resulted from the investigation.
The investigation into Coviello started in December 2019 when councilmember Marilyn Stout had a meeting with the chief of police and the city manager in 2019 to alert them about a conversation she had with Coviello. She claimed that the mayor offered to help out a charity that she runs, if she were to vote with him to fire the city manager. She said later that the mayor apologized to her for the conversation.
But when the Cape Coral police department handed the investigation over to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Stout refused to make a controlled call to the Mayor to help in their investigation.
According to an FDLE report, Stout told investigators she felt it was a waste of resources since the Mayor had already apologized to her.
On another occasion, the report said Coviello spoke to councilwoman Jessica Cosden about assuming the role of Mayor pro-tem. In an interview with investigators, she said the Mayor was simply suggesting that she run for the position as a “feather in her cap”.
She also told investigators that she “could see herself” as having made comments in the past about suspecting the Mayor of committing crimes, but at the time, “she and the Mayor weren’t getting along”. She claimed since she was appointed at Mayor pro-tem, “she has developed a more favorable opinion of the Mayor.”
By phone, Cosden told WINK News that she had no further comments outside of what she had already told investigators.
As of publication, Stout did not respond to WINK News requests for an interview. Coviello also did not respond to WINK News requests for an interview.
However, he told the Cape Coral Breeze newspaper that he felt the conversations were misconstrued and did not feel he’d committed any violation. He also told the paper, he would pay the fine and move on and equated it to a traffic ticket.
“It’s law; it’s sunshine law, and for you to violate that, you break the law. It’s not a speeding ticket. It should be much more than a speeding ticket,” said Jay LaGace, a longtime Cape Coral resident and realtor who supported Coviello’s opponent in the last mayoral race.
Coviello was elected by a small margin over Michael Hollow. But LaGace said his distaste over the sunshine law violation has nothing to do with who he supported in the last election.
“The purpose behind the sunshine act is to show transparency between government officials to make sure the public is always made aware of the decisions that their public bodies are making,” said Daniela Abratt, a media law attorney that specializes in fighting for open government access.
Abratt said it’s relatively unusual for a public official to be fined for a Sunshine Law violation, which speaks to the serious nature of the civil infraction on Coviello.
“Certainly, you would hope that if somebody gets fined, they would realize it’s a problem, and they need not to engage in that type of behavior again,” she said.
A hearing is scheduled in the infraction on October 6.
“The filing is being reviewed and considered. The matter is non-criminal and is considered a suspected infraction. If an oversight occurred in the manner of a discussion(s) with other members of City Council, it is Mayor Coviello’s intention to respond in a responsible manner,” said John Potanovic, an attorney representing Coviello.