By Mary Thurwachter
The Florida Commission on Ethics has found probable cause that Lantana Mayor David Stewart misused his position to attempt to obtain a sexual benefit for himself. Probable cause also was found to believe he solicited sex from a constituent based on an understanding his vote, official action, or judgment would be influenced.
A probable cause finding is not a determination that Stewart violated ethics laws, but that there is enough evidence of a violation to allow the investigation to proceed to a full evidentiary hearing, if Stewart chooses, said Kerrie J. Stillman, a spokesperson for the Commission on Ethics.
If that happens, the matter would go before the Division of Administrative Hearings.
Another option for Stewart would be agreeing to a settlement, the terms of which would be decided by the commission’s advocate and Stewart and his legal representative.
The ethics complaint was filed in January by Lantana resident Catherine Padilla. She claims she and Stewart, 65, had become friends when both attended meetings of the Hypoluxo-Lantana Kiwanis Club.
Their relationship took an objectionable turn in 2015, according to Padilla, when, after a morning Kiwanis meeting, the two had lunch after which he drove her to a motel and propositioned her for sex. Padilla, 54, said she “wasn’t interested” and that Stewart drove her back to her car.
She said Stewart called her a week or two later and said he would guarantee her street would get speed tables, a safety measure for which she had lobbied, if she would have sex with him at the motel.
Stewart, who has been mayor for 19 years, has said the accusations were totally false and that he has never asked for, or accepted, anything in exchange for a vote. After the probable cause finding was announced on Oct. 24, Stewart said it would not be appropriate for him to comment, as he had not heard officially from the Commission on Ethics about the ruling.
However, in documents filed as a response to the advocate’s recommendation, Stewart denied Padilla’s accusations.
Among those interviewed by the advocate this summer were friends of Padilla — David Brinkley, Kem Mason and Pastor Michael DeBehnke — who said Padilla had confided in them about her accusations. Also interviewed by the advocate was Town Manager Deborah Manzo, who said Padilla had spoken to her on Dec. 5, 2017. Manzo, according to the documents, said that Stewart “never asked nor interfered in the process of granting and/or installing the cushions [speed humps]” in Padilla’s neighborhood.
In August 2015, the Town Council voted in favor of the traffic-calming speed humps for Padilla’s street. Another unanimous vote to approve the speed humps came this year on Sept. 24.
Padilla filed an amendment to her first complaint on Jan. 11, when the mayor came to her house to talk to her about the complaint and she called police.
Stewart, according to the police report, told officers he had learned of the ethics complaint filed with the state and had gone to Padilla’s house to talk with her about it.
Padilla, according to the police report, said that when she opened the door and saw Stewart, she shut it, locked it and took a photo of Stewart in his car before he left. The two never spoke during the incident, both told police.
Another complaint was filed by Padilla on March 27, accusing the mayor of using sexual innuendo during a Kiwanis Club dinner at the Whistle Stop Lounge on Oct. 24, 2017. Manzo was also in attendance. Padilla claimed she heard Manzo say she wasn’t happy with her choice of entrees and that Stewart remarked, “You haven’t tried my meat yet.”
The Ethics Commission dismissed that complaint in July “due to a lack of legal sufficiency,” according to a news release from the commission.
The Coastal Star attempted to reach council members regarding the probable cause ruling, but most calls were not returned. However, council member Phil Aridas said he didn’t know enough about the matter to comment.