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Disgraced officials need to stop blaming alcohol

It’s eerily reminiscent of something else that happened in Florida’s recent history – a public servant has been accused of being sexually inappropriate. At least the victim was an adult this time.

According to the Tampa Tribune, Hillsborough County tax collector Doug Belden has admitted to making “unwarranted advances” on Tampa resident Julie Irwin in a bar on Harbour Island. In a familiar move, Belden has said he will acquire treatment for a drinking problem.

Jeff Brown, the St. Petersburg lawyer representing Irwin, said Belden kissed Irwin without permission and touched her breasts. Irwin’s boyfriend filed a complaint with City Hall – not the police – and Irwin will not seek criminal charges.

Detectives from the Tampa Police Department are investigating whether Belden’s actions qualify as misdemeanor battery. However, if Irwin formally requests the Tampa Police Department not to charge Belden, there will be little the police can do.

Belden may be victorious in skirting legal charges for his inappropriate behavior – Irwin has denied accepting any monetary settlement for her decision to not press charges – but in the public eye he could not have made any more mistakes. He denied the charges for a week before finally admitting his actions. He had scheduled, but then canceled, two interviews with the Tribune.

Furthermore, Belden – just like another public official in recent memory – blamed it on alcohol. Alcohol-related incidents may take up a lot of police officers’ time, and it may even enhance the possibility of a fight or a car accident. However, it does not magically turn a man into a pervert who assaults women.

Former city councilman Scott Paine said, “I think experience tells us the public tends to be fairly forgiving when public officials own up to this kind of misdeed and acknowledges that it’s wrong.”

Maybe this is the time for the public to not be so forgiving.

It is not as if sexual assault – and worse, rape – is such a minor, rarely occurring problem that the public can simply sweep under the rug and completely alleviate the perpetrator for his acts, especially when the admittance of culpability was delayed for a substantial amount of time and the perpetrator in question is a public official. It is understandable that Irwin wants to put the whole event behind her, but unfortunately in this case – as well as in most cases such as these – her desire to move on comes at a price to the rest of society. This sort of behavior should have repercussions. The meaning of the word “no” is not, after all, such a difficult thing to grasp.