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Florida Bill Could Undermine Corruption Investigations

The legislation would require a person to have “personal knowledge or information other than hearsay” to file a complaint with the state’s Commission on Ethics. It would also bar local ethics commissions from self-initiating investigations.

A bill approved by the Florida Legislature could undermine the state’s ethics laws and allow corruption to go unchallenged by making it “almost impossible” for the public to file a complaint, government watchdog groups are warning Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The measure (SB 7014) would require a person to have “personal knowledge or information other than hearsay” to file a complaint with the Florida Commission on Ethics. It also would bar local ethics commissions from self-initiating investigations, a prohibition already in place for the state’s ethics commission.

Common Cause Florida and eight other advocacy groups are urging DeSantis to veto the bill, which they say would erect an “unreasonable barrier” and deter people from filing ethics complaints against politicians and public officials. For instance, complaints could not be filed based solely on investigative news articles.

“This isn’t about minimizing frivolous complaints; this is about making complaints almost impossible,” Amy Keith, executive director of Common Cause Florida, said in a prepared statement. “The people of Florida deserve accountability and transparency and the right to demand it of officials.”

Caroline Klancke, executive director of the Florida Ethics Institute, called the proposed overhaul “an unprecedented attack on the good work that these agencies provide through ethics investigations.”

Under existing law, ethics complaints must be “signed under oath or affirmation” that the facts are true to a person’s best “knowledge and belief.”

State Sen. Danny Burgess, who proposed the changes, said he wants to ensure complaints have “merit” and are “worthy of an investigation.”

“We shouldn’t use anonymous quotes from news articles or reports not based on firsthand knowledge,” the Zephyrhills Republican said in an email. “People can currently use and abuse this as an option, especially during an election year. SB 7014 does not diminish or lessen the process, it ensures we root out real corruption and abuse by focusing resources on ethics complaints that Floridians want to see investigated and adjudicated.”

The governor’s office will review the bill as it does all legislation, a spokeswoman said in an email when asked for the governor’s position.

Advocates have long criticized Florida’s ethics commission as a “toothless tiger.” It is barred from launching its own investigations. It can only act on a sworn complaint from the public or a referral from the governor, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, a state attorney or a U.S. attorney.

The governor, House speaker and Senate president appoint ethics commissioners with rules in place that no one party control the panel.

The commission can recommend punishments, including fines up to $20,000. But the governor, legislative leaders, the attorney general and the Supreme Court are responsible for imposing the commission’s recommended penalties, depending on which public official is involved.

DeSantis last signed an ethics order imposing penalties against local elected officials and candidates in 2021, according to the governor’s website. About three dozen cases are awaiting action from the governor, according to a March ethics commission report.

The ethics commission has been roiled by controversy recently. Glen Gilzean resigned in August as the commission’s chairman when it was revealed he violated a prohibition on public employees serving on the panel. Gilzean had taken a job leading DeSantis’ Disney World oversight district. He is now serving as Orange County’s elections supervisor.

Another DeSantis appointee, Moms for Liberty co-founder Tina Descovich, also has run into problems. The Senate declined to confirm her nomination amid concerns she could be a lobbyist, which isn’t allowed under the commission’s rules.

DeSantis plans to reappoint her, a spokesman said, and the Senate will have a second chance to confirm her nomination next year. Florida law allows her to continue to serve until then.

©2024 Orlando Sentinel. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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