Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, has been promising to reform Washington, but in the meantime, he has let scores of ethics directives meant to penalize corrupt state lawmakers sit on his desk in Tallahassee.
The last ethics directive that the Republican governor signed was on January 28, 2021, according to the governor’s website. Until he acts, politicians and public servants can resolve ethical complaints without paying fines in the thousands, even if they confess guilt.
A former Orange County commissioner is among those facing ethics charges for failing to report a financial interest in a vote. A Manatee County commissioner made news when she put herself and four people on a VIP list to get the COVID-19 vaccination during a time when supplies were extremely low.
Integrity Florida’s research director, Ben Wilcox, said the backlog shows the state isn’t serious about implementing ethics rules.
He criticised the ruling, saying it sends the wrong message to public officials that they can get away with breaking Florida’s ethical rules.
According to a report from Florida Commission on Ethics head and attorney Kerrie Stillman dated August 24, 42 outstanding orders recommending fines await the governor’s decision.
Lynn Blais, a spokesperson for the ethics commission, explained that fines cannot be collected until DeSantis approves the panel’s suggested sanctions because of Florida law.
She argued that the panel could not enforce its proposed punishments. The Attorney General’s Office can only collect once the penalty has been issued.
“He needs to get to work.”
Betsy VanderLey, a former Orange government commissioner, is included in one of the suggested orders because she voted to give almost $100,000 in government funds to an engineering business that was also paying her.
In the summer of 2020, environmental activist Chuck O’Neal lodged an ethics complaint against VanderLey, and by December 2021, she had settled the case by paying a $1,000 fine.
Betsy VanderLey is a former Orange County commissioner (Sarah Espedido/Orlando Sentinel).
O’Neal was startled to find that DeSantis hasn’t imposed sanctions more than three years after he filed the complaint against former Orange County Commissioner Betsy VanderLey (Sarah Espedido/Orlando Sentinel).
According to O’Neal, “there doesn’t seem to be any accountability in the Florida state government.” “Elected officials found in violation of ethics complaints have no repercussions, yet you can have the governor fire them for doing their jobs.”
O’Neal claims that the governor’s suspension of Orange-Osceola State Attorney Monique Worrell, which received widespread media attention, is at odds with the governor’s glacial pace in issuing ethics rules.
The governor’s slowness in signing ethics orders doesn’t square with his recent, high-profile suspension of Orange-Osceola State Attorney Monique Worrell, O’Neal said.
DeSantis said that Worrell, a Democrat, was “clearly and fundamentally derelict” in her responsibilities since she did not aggressively prosecute crime. To Worrell, the governor’s move reeked of partisanship.
The root cause of the ethics backlog remains unknown. DeSantis’s spokesperson, Jeremy Redfern, declined to comment. Although it was mentioned in a 2020 USA Today Network article and again in a WFLA television program in July, the topic has mostly gone unnoticed in Florida politics.
DeSantis, while campaigning, has promised to “break the swamp” in Washington and take a hard line against corruption if he is elected president.
In one speech, DeSantis promised to usher in “a new era of accountability with these agencies in D.C.” on his first day in office.
There are numerous high-profile instances on the list of suggested directives, and they include both Republicans and Democrats.
Ex-Manatee County commissioner Vanessa Baugh was called out for putting herself, a developer, and three people on a VIP list for a COVID-19 vaccination pop-up event in February 2021, when demand was strong for the injection. Baugh is a huge DeSantis fan and even voted to have a park named after the governor.
Baugh, who claimed she declined the vaccination at the pop-up event, consented in November to pay a $8,000 fine after the commission concluded she had broken the ethics code by using her office to break the county’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution policy.
Alex Rodriguez, a spoiler candidate running as an independent in the South Florida state senate contest in 2020, has been recommended to be fined $20,000 for ethical violations.
In exchange for his guilty plea, former Democratic state senator José Javier Rodrguez was charged with accepting $45,000 in bribes as part of an alleged “ghost” candidate conspiracy.
Also included is former Apopka mayor Joe Kilsheimer, who in 2017 was accused of taking a taxpayer-funded vacation by incorrectly charging expenditures incurred while attending a national mayor’s conference. Kilsheimer settled with the city for $668 and fines of $2,000.
Former Broward County Mayor Dale Holness and current Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum’s director of staff while he was mayor of Tallahassee, Dustin Daniels, are two examples of Democrats who have been accused of wrongdoing.
Holness pleaded guilty to an ethics offense and agreed to pay $1,000 for failing to accurately report his income in accordance with state law. The panel determined that Daniels had broken the ethics rule by using city equipment to send a mass email relevant to his campaign, and they recommended a punishment of $1,000.
Seven of the people on the list are represented by Mark Herron, a Tallahassee attorney who claims his clients are “ready, willing, and able” to pay the penalties.
On the other hand, “they are not beating down the door, saying please get him to sign the final order,” Herron added.
Tiger without any teeth
Florida law places restrictions on the Ethics Commission’s ability to enforce the ethics code, which addresses abuse of office and other standards of conduct, according to Wilcox, the research director of the government watchdog group.
The Commission on Ethics has been nicknamed a “toothless tiger,” he remarked. The lack of assertiveness was not the fault of the Ethics Commission. The Florida State Assembly has not given the agency the resources it needs to be an effective enforcer of ethics rules.
The ethics commission must have a formal, signed complaint before it may launch an inquiry. Wilcox compared this to only permitting the police to pull over a fast automobile if another driver called in to complain.
After determining whether or not a complaint has legal merit, the commission will conduct an investigation and vote on whether or not there is reasonable cause that a violation occurred. The accused official has the right to a hearing before an administrative court if this occurs. They can also negotiate with the commission in an effort to resolve the matter.
The panel has the authority to propose punishments such as monetary fines, public censure, or even dismissal from office. But it is the responsibility of agency heads to really carry them out.
Most cases involving public officials, workers, or candidates have their punishments recommended to the governor.
The House speaker and Senate president are informed of any findings against state lawmakers and senators. Legislative leaders, Wilcox argues, have not been vigorous in punishing lawmakers who violate ethical norms.
Recently, it came to light that the head of the nine-person ethics panel had broken a state rule prohibiting public workers from serving. After serving as ethics chairman since May, when he was hired as DeSantis’ Disney oversight district administrator at $400,000 per year, Glen Gilzean resigned from the board last month to focus on his new position.
Ashley Lukis, a lawyer whose husband was DeSantis’ chief of staff, has taken over as chair.
A recent appointment by DeSantis has been met with criticism. He selected Tina Descovich, a conservative education activist and co-founder of Moms for Liberty. State law mandates a nonpartisan ethics commission with no more than five members from the same political party. Members are selected by the governor, the speaker of the House, and the president of the Senate.
According to Caroline Klancke, head of the Florida Ethics Institute, claims that the state’s ethics commission is ineffective are unfounded.
This year, lawmakers strengthened government openness by increasing financial disclosure rules for municipal politicians, and they boosted the maximum sentence for an ethical violation from $10,000 to $20,000.
From the perspective of the ethics commission’s former general counsel and deputy executive director, Klancke, Florida has some of the most comprehensive ethical regulations applicable to public officers and workers in the country.
However, O’Neal, who originally filed the ethics complaint against VanderLey, now claims that there is room for change as a result of his experience.
O’Neal said that an ethics commission should act quickly, issue fair punishments, and have those punishments carried out in a way that is at least partially congruent with the occurrence of an ethical infraction.