Out of principle, Chief Timoney should testify in Lexusgate
Miami Police Chief John Timoney says his fight to the bitter end to avoid testifying before the city's Civilian Investigative Panel is a matter of principle.
Paradoxically, principle is the very reason the chief should give up the fight and testify.
Last November the panel, which investigates possible police misconduct, subpoenaed Mr. Timoney to testify about his use for more than a year of a new Lexus SUV without paying the car dealership a penny. The chief first waffled when reporters uncovered the deal, then he paid full price for the car when he was put on the spot.
If any of his officers had done what the chief did, they'd be long gone. But he's the chief, and he interprets the rules — though he paid a $500 fine plus costs and was docked a week's pay in the incident. And he's now interpreting the rules of the civilian panel that oversees the police department to say that the panel can't investigate him because it reports to him.
The issue of whether he must testify remains in court. A circuit court judge this month ordered him to appear before the investigative panel, but he's appealing to a higher court. It's possible that the appellate court will agree with the chief's position, in which case he could avoid going before the only civilian group to oversee police conduct.
But Chief Timoney must not make the mistake of fighting to the end. By appearing to be arrogant and above the law and the people who oversee it, he is calling his own department's principles and leadership into question. Not only for his own sake but for the sake of the men and women whom he competently leads, he should voluntarily abandon his quest for immunity and do the right thing: testify.
It's the moral equivalent of the chief taking the Fifth Amendment on a question of breaking the law. It's absolutely his right to do so, but absolutely the wrong thing to do.
The Lexus episode has heaped on the department scorn it doesn't deserve. The chief tried to make things right by paying in the end for what he was questionably getting for free for more than a year in a monumental lapse of what has ordinarily been his good judgment.
Now he is compounding the felony — figuratively, if not literally. By using every possible dodge to avoid telling 13 civilians — one of whom he personally appointed — about the Lexus incident, he avoids a potential slap on the wrist but gives the appearance of holding himself above the law and above the government that hired him to administer the police department.
That's unfortunate in that he is one of the nation's most competent chiefs, one who on most days we're proud to have leading our police force. But by digging in his heels, he's undercutting his own credibility and authority — at least, moral authority.
His best friends should advise him that by claiming a matter of principle, he appears to be showing a lack of principle.
It's disingenuous, for example, for the chief to say that the panel was created to report to him and therefore cannot investigate him. The panel by law officially reports to him and to the city manager, his boss. It also by law officially reports to the mayor and city commission, the city manager's bosses. And it also by law officially reports to the public, which should be the boss of not only the chief and manager but the commission and mayor.
The chief is the low man on that power structure totem pole, which starts with the public and then the elected officials, followed by the manager and finally by the police chief. That seems abundantly clear to all — and, we're sure, in his heart it's clear to Chief Timoney.
On the police department's Web site, Chief Timoney's personal message to the public reads in part, "we are continually striving to build improved relationships with all of the many communities that we serve. The very best relationships are built on understanding and communication…" In this he is absolutely correct.
But by balking at the Civilian Investigative Panel's call to testify, Mr. Timoney is undercutting that understanding and communication that he ordinarily would find vital for the well-being of the police department and the community.
The panel's next meeting is at 6 p.m. April 15 at City Hall. We're sure the chief will have his personal income taxes completed and mailed early enough that day that he can be at the meeting. For the sake of his city, his department, the people he leads and himself, he should be there, court case or no court case.
It is, after all, a matter of principle.