By Dan Moffett
Mayor Geoff Pugh says he has been fielding the same two questions from Ocean Ridge residents since Vice Mayor Richard Lucibella’s arrest after a scuffle with police in October:
What do you think about it?
And what are you going to do about it?
Pugh says residents aren’t always satisfied with his answers, or the lack thereof.
On the advice of Town Attorney Glen Torcivia, the mayor refrains from public comment on Lucibella’s arrest, hoping to minimize the town’s involvement in possible litigation down the road. So Pugh generally keeps his thoughts to himself.
As to the second question, Pugh tells people “nothing” — until Police Chief Hal Hutchins completes his investigation on the incident.
“Nothing can be done until after that investigation is over and we have all the facts,” Pugh says. “Then we can look at everything we have to use at our disposal. Until then, I’d ask people to have a little patience and let the chief do his job and get the information that we need.”
Hutchins says the internal investigation into the events at Lucibella’s home on Oct. 22 “has no timetable” for completion. “It is fluid and depends on what is discovered as we go forward,” the chief said.
Police arrived at Lucibella’s oceanfront home that Saturday night after neighbors complained of hearing gunshots. Officers said they found the vice mayor and one of their department’s supervisors, police Lt. Steven Wohlfiel, “obviously intoxicated” on the patio. Officers say they took a .40-caliber Glock handgun from Lucibella and found five spent shell casings on the patio.
According to police reports, when officers Richard Ermeri and Nubia Plesnik tried to block Lucibella from entering the house, he resisted. The officers wrestled him to the ground and handcuffed him. Lucibella needed treatment for facial injuries, and Ermeri and Plesnik also required medical attention.
Lucibella was charged with resisting arrest with violence, a felony, as well as two misdemeanors: discharging a firearm in a residential area and use of a firearm while intoxicated.
Through his attorney, Marc Shiner, Lucibella has claimed that he is the victim of police overreaction. He maintains they should not have entered his backyard in the first place, and then that they used excessive force. Shiner has called for Ermeri’s firing and an investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Hutchins has reassigned Wohlfiel until completion of the investigation of his role in the incident. Both Lucibella and the lieutenant told police they knew nothing about shots being fired.
At the Nov. 7 town meeting, which Lucibella did not attend, several residents argued that the likelihood the vice mayor was planning to sue the town over the incident presents a conflict of interest that should disqualify him from serving on the commission.
Among those making that case was Bob Merkel, an attorney for 42 years who defended the town in two lawsuits years ago. Merkel said Shiner, in public comments, had threatened to sue the town, raising a potential conflict of interest that should trouble commissioners. In an email to The Coastal Star, Lucibella dismissed the complaints about a conflict of interest as grandstanding and said the law is clear that nothing prevents him from serving.
“This is a straw man argu-ment, put forth by individuals who seek to read their names in the press,” Lucibella said. “The result is constant cries that the sky is falling in Ocean Ridge. If the commonsense answer to this silly accusation remains elusive, I suggest a quick read of the law. FS 112.313(6) and FS 112.3143(3)(a) are good places to start.”
Lucibella refers to sections of the Florida Statutes that define conflicts and standards of conduct for elected officials.
Torcivia agrees with the vice mayor, saying speculation about a lawsuit is a hypothetical situation that does not present a conflict at this time. He also said there was nothing in the town’s charter that gives the commission the authority to remove or sanction Lucibella for allegations of misconduct stemming from his arrest.
Torcivia told commissioners that the charter only considers standards set in the state and county codes of ethics. Those standards for action deal primarily with conflicts of interest, unlawful financial gain and corruption. He said there’s nothing in the charter or ethics codes to cover allegations of fights with police or illegally firing weapons.
“There is no money that went into his pocket because of this incident,” Torcivia said, telling commissioners, “Your hands are tied.” He also warned them not to get ahead of the legal system: “Judge, jury and executioner is not the role of this commission.”
Torcivia said Lucibella is presumed innocent, and if proven otherwise in court, the governor could act to remove him from office.
“The governor takes that very seriously,” he said. “There’s a high probability the governor would do that.”
Lucibella’s three-year term expires in March, and he has been noncommittal about whether he will run again, saying he “hasn’t thought too much about” it and, “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
Town officials say they expect the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office to decide by Dec. 8 on whether to charge Lucibella. If criminal charges are filed, Torcivia says Gov. Rick Scott might decide to intervene.
“At some point,” he said, “the ball may be in the governor’s court.”
For now, Pugh is telling residents to take a deep breath and let the system work.
“Everybody wants to have a quick decision, get it done, get it over with and get it out of our lives,” he said. “But you have to make sure you have all the facts. Once we get them, we can make a quality decision.”