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GUEST EDITORIAL: Florida Lawmakers Want to Weaken State's Ethics Laws, Only Ron DeSantis Can Stop Them

Governor Must Soon decide Whether to Sign or Veto Public Corruption Bill .

Last fall, the state agency that investigates potentially corrupt Florida politicians urged lawmakers in Tallahassee to strengthen the state's ethics laws.

The Florida Commission on Ethics wanted to tighten conflict-of-interest rules. It proposed legal protections for whistleblowers who reveal wrongdoing. It suggested garnishing the salaries of guilty public officials who refuse to pay their fines.

Florida lawmakers ignored all three of those ideas. They decided to weaken the state's ethics laws instead.

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They did so through Senate Bill 7014, a bill that would make it far more difficult for ethics investigators in Florida to probe allegations of public corruption. The most controversial provisions of the bill - which could hobble the state ethics office in Tallahassee and cripple local ethics agencies in communities around the state - were all added to the legislation late in the process, in a way that ensured no one from the public ever had a chance to testify against them.

Pushed by Republican leaders in the state Senate, the legislation passed Florida's GOP-controlled Legislature with less than 24 hours remaining in this year's legislative session - with a couple of Democratic state senators voting for the bill, too.

Twenty-four Republicans and two Democrats voted for SB 7014 when it passed the Florida Senate. The bill passed House by a 79-34 vote.

But Senate Bill 7014 isn't the law just yet. It's still awaiting a decision from Gov. Ron DeSantis, who could veto the legislation.

A host of organizations, from government-watchdog groups like Common Cause to local offices like the Jacksonville Ethics Commission, are now pleading with the governor to kill the bill. DeSantis' office has so far declined to say what he intends to do.

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Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has an opportunity to block a proposed law that would shield legislators from ethics complaints.

This will be one of the most important decisions Ron DeSantis makes from the 2024 legislative session.

Building Barriers

If DeSantis were to sign it, SB 7014 would make a host of changes to Florida's "Code of Ethics for Public Officers and Employees."

But a few provisions would have particularly far-reaching impacts.

One would restrict the kind of complaints that the Florida Commission on Ethics can investigate.

Under current law, the Ethics Commission is generally forbidden from opening an investigation unless someone first files a sworn complaint with the agency. The commission can't do a thing without a complaint, even if the agency is aware of potential misconduct. (The governor and law-enforcement agencies can also refer cases to the commission.)

It's relatively easy to file a complaint with agency. Anyone can do it - as long as they submit the complaint in writing, under the real name, and sign under oath that the facts they allege are true.

But SB 7014 would erect a new barrier: It would require complaints to be based "personal knowledge or information other than hearsay."

That's a high bar. It would effectively prohibit the Ethics Commission from ever looking into any allegations based on secondhand information - like investigations published by newspapers or television stations, which frequently serve as the basis for ethics complaints.

It wouldn't matter how strong or compelling the secondhand evidence is. The Ethics Commission would be powerless to act on it.

In fact, the bill could block even more complaints than that. That's because the term "hearsay" isn't defined in SB 7014. But it is defined in another section of state law. And that definition is very strict.

In fact, if you use that definition of hearsay, SB 7014 would probably prevent anyone from filing an ethics complaint unless they personally witnessed a crime.

Senate leaders insist there's nothing to worry about here. They say that SB 7014 wouldn't use that super-strict definition of hearsay. It would instead rely on a looser, more informal definition of the term.

"The goal is to prevent an ethics complaint from being based on gossip or rumor," Senate staffers wrote in a memo defending SB 7014, which was obtained through a public-records request. "This does not require personal knowledge, or to have been in the room when the unethical behavior occurred."

In support of that position, the Senate cites a 2010 case in which a Florida court chose to use the looser definition of hearsay in a case involving a similar statute governing the Florida Elections Commission, which investigates potential campaign-finance and other election-code violations.

But that rests entirely on one 14-year-old appellate court opinion. The issue still hasn't been tested before the state Supreme Court. And counting on Florida courts - which have been remade by a decade-and-a-half of judicial appointments under DeSantis and former Gov. Rick Scott - to stick with a liberal interpretation of the law may be a risky bet.

It was just a few weeks ago that the new DeSantis majority on the Florida Supreme Court decided to overturn 35 years of precedent and rule that the right to privacy in Florida's Constitution no longer covers access to abortion.

It's not just a bunch of outside government watchdog groups worried about this, either. The Ethics Commission itself says that prohibiting complaints based on hearsay would be a big change.

"The personal information/hearsay standard marks a significant shift in the requirements of complaints filed with our agency," Kerrie Stillman, the commission's executive director, wrote in an April 3 memo to the agency's governing board.

Neutering Local Watchdogs

While Senate Bill 7014 will weaken the state Ethics Commission, it could also absolutely cripple local ethics commissions, which operate independently.

The bill would, for instance, impose the same "personal knowledge" requirement on complaints filed with local agencies. It would also ban local agencies from acting on anonymous tips.

And most importantly, it would prohibit local ethics commissions from launching investigations on their own - turning them all into purely passive bodies, like the state Ethics Commission.

This would have a dramatic impact on local ethics enforcement. In Palm Beach County, for instance, where voters established a local ethics commission in 2009, about half of all cases are initiated by the commission itself.

One of Florida's most high-profile recent ethics cases - involving a former state senator and county commissioner in Miami who is now facing bribery, money laundering and other criminal charges - was initiated by the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust.

There are some other potentially troubling provisions in SB 7014, too.

For instance, the legislation would allow lawyers serving in elected office to hide the identities of high-paying clients from the public on their financial disclosure forms - even when a single client accounts for much of the politician's annual income. There are, of course, a lot of lawyers serving in the Florida Legislature, including the current Senate president and House speaker.

The bill would also make it harder for the governing board of the Florida Commission on Ethics to reject settlements negotiated by the commission's attorneys and public officials accused of ethical wrongdoing.

A high-profile example of this occurred in 2021, when ethics commissioners rejected as insufficient a $6,500 fine for a spoiler candidate used by Republican consultants to tilt the outcome in a key state Senate election. It was part of a larger "ghost candidate" scheme orchestrated in a trio of battleground Senate races around the state.

The spoiler candidate, who also pled guilty to criminal charges, and the Ethics Commission later reached a revised settlement increasing the fine to $20,000. Each of the three state senators who were helped by the 2020 ghost candidate scheme - Sens. Ileana Garcia (R-Miami), Ana Maria Rodriguez (R-Miami) and Jason Brodeur (R-Sanford) - supported SB 7014.

No Support for Ethics Staff

Throughout the debate on SB 7014, legislative leaders insisted they were simply trying to block politically motivated complaints and ensure ethics agencies can effectively and efficiently investigate serious cases.

But there are reasons to question how sincere that sentiment is.

Consider this: There's another part of SB 7014 that establishes standardized timelines that the Florida Commission on Ethics would have to start following. The legislation would require the agency to complete a preliminary investigation within 30 days of receiving a complaint, for example.

The idea, lawmakers said, was to get complaints resolved more quickly, so that uncorroborated allegations don't just hang over someone indefinitely.

But during internal discussions on the legislation, records show that Ethics Commission staff warned they would need more manpower to comply with the new timeframes - or else they'd risk having missed deadlines torpedo otherwise legitimate cases.

The agency didn't want much: Only about $320,000 to hire two more staff attorneys, plus a lower-paid program specialist who could help with complaint intake.

It was the equivalent of asking for a few extra nickels out of Florida's $117 billion budget.

Florida lawmakers refused to fund it.

For more information, please visit Seeking Rents.

Author Bio

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Jason Garcia is the author of "Seeking Rents," a newsletter highlighting the actions of the Florida Legislature and topics of importance to residents.


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