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Bill headed to Gov. Ron DeSantis has municipal ethics officials concerned

City officials statewide are now required to provide detailed information about their assets, liabilities, sources of income and net worth
City officials statewide are now required to provide detailed information about their assets, liabilities, sources of income and net worth

Local ethics commission officials across the state are concerned that legislation awaiting Governor Ron DeSantis’ signature could gut their ability to fight corruption.

The bill adds time limits to the length of ethics investigations, requires sworn affidavits to launch ethics complaints, and bans second-hand knowledge from being used in investigations. It also allows those running for public office to seek civil damages when someone files a fraudulent complaint.

John Reid, general counsel for the Tallahassee Independent Ethics Board, said the legislation keeps boards from providing whistleblower protections to anyone that might be fearful of retribution for coming forward.

“We would not even be able to look into the issue until somebody gave us a sworn complaint. So, we might know that fraud is taking place, we might know that corruption is right in front of our eyes. But now under this bill, Senate Bill 7014 we'll be completely powerless to do anything about it,” he said.

While Tallahassee has a small local ethics board, the legislation will have a more sweeping impact on larger municipalities. Jose Arrojo is the executive director of the Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics and Public Trust, which oversees ethics complaints in the county and its 34 municipalities. Currently, the commission only receives about 50 sworn complaints a year, but receive hundreds of anonymous complaints through their tipline and other ways to protect whistleblowers.

Arrojo said the law will completely change the scope of how his department can serve the public.

“The citizens of Miami Dade County have lost a repository for complaints of ethical misconduct, you know, the one agency that could take these referrals and act upon them and send them out to different agencies. That ability to do that no longer exists for the citizens of Miami Dade County, at least not with their ethics commission,” he said.

The changes criticized by the local ethics officials were added to the bill by Zephyrhills Republican Senator Danny Burgess. He argued on the senate Floor that the changes were to keep ethics commissions from being utilized for political purposes.

“Somebody could call a tipline, hotline, pick up the phone and say “this person is doing x, y and z,” hang up the phone, then immediately maybe call the media and tip that off that a complaint was made then the whole thing spirals out of control," he said.

President Kathleen Passidomo issued a statement defending the legislation, saying its goal was to make sure ethics commissions overseeing public officials have uniform, consistent standards.

"I believe that state and local ethics boards should be able to spend their time investigating serious violations of our ethics laws, not politically motivated public relations stunts designed to generate headlines. All too often the current process is weaponized by bad actors," she wrote.

Some advocacy groups disagreed with that reasoning. Amy Keith, executive director of Common Cause Florida, pointed to almost 79% of Floridians backing a constitutional amendment in 2018 making stricter ethics rules in the state. She believes that’s evidence that the public would not approve of the new changes.

“Floridians want transparent, accountable, and ethical officials. I don't think this bill is about minimizing frivolous complaints or any of that, I think it's about making claims almost impossible. And I think that undermines the will of the people of Florida,” she said.

Common Cause is calling on Gov. Ron DeSantis to veto the legislation. They not only take issue with what the bill does, but how the bill was passed. The controversial changes added by Burgess came after the bill passed its final committee stop, meaning the public couldn’t comment on the changes.

“Not only did we see cutting off avenues for ethics complaints to move forward, but we also saw, the way that these bills came about was cutting off the ability of public citizens to be part of that deliberative process in committee about these provisions and the impact they would have. And that's something we certainly hope that the governor will look at,” she said.

Burgess has not yet responded to a request for comment on why his amendment came after the committee process.

However, Passidomo said she believes critics of the legislation are mischaracterizing it. She said people can still file complaints based on things outside their personal knowledge like campaign reports and business documents, and several local ethics commissions already have similar requirements.

"The standards in the bill are not entirely new. Plenty of local ethics boards already require sworn complaints based on the standard in the bill. And I have concerns that in other jurisdictions the self-initiation powers are or could be politicized and weaponized," she wrote.

Tristan Wood is a senior producer and host with WFSU Public Media. A South Florida native and University of Florida graduate, he focuses on state government in the Sunshine State and local panhandle political happenings.