The Looney complaint dismissal: an ethical vindication of public oversight

There’s a very funny line in the Florida Commission on Ethics’ dismissal of Laquita Looney’s complaint against me. You can see it above. It’s point number two.

The Respondent, Billy Townsend, allegedly serves as a member of the School Board of Polk County.

I literally laughed out loud when I read that. Who knew the Ethics Commission has a sense of humor? However, as I thought for a second, it occurred to me that the comical “allegedly” comes with a rather profound and vindicating deeper meeting.

The “allegedly” means that the Ethics Commission did absolutely no investigative work. To not even verify that I am an elected School Board member makes that clear. This does not mean the Commission is lazy. It means the Commission read Laquita Looney’s complaint as if everything she “alleged” was true and threw it out on its own terms.

Indeed, the Commission actually says this explicitly: “No factual investigation preceded the review, and therefore the Commission’s conclusions do not reflect on the accuracy of the allegations of the complaint.” 

Referring to me as “allegedly” a School Board member underscores what “no factual investigation” really means. I never even had to mount a defense — because nothing Looney alleged is remotely an ethical violation. I think other board members both in Polk and across the state should take heed of this.

Ethical vindication

There are a few open lies in Looney’s complaint. I’ll document one in just a second, just for posterity. But, in total, the complaint essentially accused me of speaking critically in public about:

  1. Looney’s behavior — and that of her husband — as employees of the school system.
  2. How the institution I’m elected to help oversee has addressed that behavior.

To which I answer: yes, I did that. And don’t expect me to stop identifying and publicly commenting on important institutional issues.

Indeed, I consider it my ethical obligation to understand and communicate publicly — if necessary — the institutional problems the Polk School District needs to address.

There are a few people who think we elected board members should not do this; that there is something unfair or outside the School Board’s role to comment on the work environment or personnel policies and performance of the School District staff. Well, Laquita Looney just tested that position with the Florida Commission on Ethics. And the Commission on Ethics dismissed her point-of-view out of hand, without investigating any facts.

Whatever she accused me of doing, is, in fact, completely ethical, which I always knew.  Again, other board members should take heed of this.

An easily documentable lie told under oath

The first allegation in Looney’s complaint was an easily documented lie. It read:

“On Sunday, September 9, 2018, Billy Townsend was an uninvited guest at my parents church for Family and Friends Day. When he was introduced, my youngest son began to cry an ask if that was the man that has been harassing our family.”

Here is the invitation I received for the service, along with fellow Board Member Kay Fields. Note the stamp saying “received by” at the bottom right hand side.

I personally spoke to the minister prior to the service and confirmed the invitation. Moreover, I have attended this church fairly regularly in the last couple years. I’m not a member; but I enjoy the experience and the friends I’ve made there. I have always felt welcomed. On the day in question, “Friends and Family Day,” I was one of a number of elected officials or candidates who attended and were introduced.

It doesn’t matter to the truth of the “allegation”; but I did not know Laquita Looney was in attendance. I never saw her or any family member. Nonetheless, she told the Ethics Commission that my attendance constituted “harassment” of her children.

Here is the oath Laquita Looney swore in making that accusation.

“I, the person bringing this complaint, do swear or affirm that the facts set forth in the foregoing complaint and attachments thereto are true and correct to the best of my knowledge and belief.”

Apparently lying under oath to the Ethics Commission is not like lying under oath to law enforcement. There appears to be no criminal sanction for it. (I asked, out of curiosity.) Anybody can lie openly about any elected official without any real consequence, outside of some sort of potential civil case remedy. I have no plans to do that. I’ve got my own platform and can address the record fairly effectively. This is all just part of doing business the way I do it.

However, for someone without my comfort with pubic scrutiny and platform for communication, I can see where the Ethics Commission process could be pretty traumatic and make you feel powerless.

Impunity is the enemy of common purpose

Laquita Looney’s easily documentable lie matters a great deal in considering the institutional issues her case raises.

In two investigations — one in 2010 and another in 2017 — the Polk School District sided with Laquita Looney in conflicts that pitted her word against one or more co-workers.

In the 2017 case, the District accepted her word at face value so promptly and completely that HR staff essentially outsourced all investigation to law enforcement. It so accepted her truthfulness that it immediately and severely punished the other person in the conflict, even though Looney’s version of events conflicted with the only third-party witness’ version. Eventually, the State Attorney’s Office threw out the charges that rested entirely on Laquita Looney’s statement. But there was no action taken against Looney at all. Full account of this issue at this link.

As I’ve said before, the Looney issue is not really a Looney issue. It’s an institutional issue. The Looneys seem to operate within the district with complete impunity. The record shows that anyone who comes in conflict with them suffers dearly for it. It doesn’t matter if the Looneys were the alleged victim or the alleged perpetrator, the record shows that the institution sides with them as people. You can see this institutional history in excruciating detail in this timeline. No one has ever explained to me why this impunity exists.

This open impunity is incredibly toxic for any organization. The persons or the names involved are irrelevant. The impunity is what matters. When individuals are clearly above the law, in an institutional sense, it makes common purpose impossible. Thus, I will never abide impunity quietly in the organization I help to oversee.

And the Florida Commission on Ethics just told everyone there’s nothing ethically wrong with refusing to quietly abide it.

The next step is to finally fix this. We’ve got a new board and a new attitude. I will propose to my fellow board members that progress on institutional issues — such as those presented by the Looneys — become a formal part of of our strategic plan.

In fact, I’ll be pushing for us to adjust the structure of the School Board’s strategic plan — what we prioritize and evaluate by — to a model that more closely resembles Osceola County’s much more holistic approach. Go take a look. More on that to come. Stay tuned.