Florida Ethics Update: Commission on Ethics Determinations—March Meeting
By Caroline Klancke, Esq., Florida Ethics Institute.
During its meeting on Friday, March 10, 2023, the Florida Commission on Ethics, the constitutionally created independent agency tasked with interpreting and enforcing the State’s ethics laws, took action on a myriad of matters involving the Code of Ethics for Public Officers and Employees (Code of Ethics) and the “Ethics in Government” amendment to the State constitution (Art. II, s. 8, Fla. Const.).
During its public session meeting, the Commission considered a settlement agreement entered into between the Commission’s Advocate and Jacksonville City Council member Keith Doherty. The Commission approved and adopted the settlement, finding that Mr. Doherty failed to disclose businesses in which he served as an officer, director or proprietor, agent, or owned a material interest, on his 2015 and 2016 “Statement of Financial Interest” disclosures. A civil penalty of $500 was recommended to the Governor for imposition.
The Commission granted the Advocate’s Motion to Dismiss a complaint filed against former Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services and gubernatorial candidate, Nikki Fried, citing a “lack of evidence to proceed.” More information regarding the dismissal is available in FEI’s article here.
The Commission also adopted two advisory opinions providing guidance to public officers. In the first advisory opinion, the Commission found that a City Commissioner would have a prohibited conflict of interest if she were to receive funds from the City’s property improvement grant program that she helped to create in her public capacity.
In another opinion, the Commission provided guidance to a member of the West Villages Improvement District Board of Supervisors who also serves—in his private capacity—as a member and officer of his Property Owners Association. The Commission found there would be a prohibited conflict of interest or a conflicting employment or contractual relationship by the member being involved in a lawsuit where he has roles on both sides of the lawsuit. Voting conflict guidance also was provided to the member.
During its closed session meeting (wherein confidential and exempt matters are addressed) the Commission took action on 36 matters. Nine of those matters were considered for probable cause. In a press release issued on March 15, 2023, the Commission issued the following findings.
The Commission considered a complaint filed against Osceola High School teacher David Martinez and found that there was no probable cause to believe Mr. Martinez abused his position to obtain a disproportionate benefit or that he misused his position when he transported students in the ESE/Transition program to his residence to teach them how to use yard equipment.
The Commission considered a complaint filed against Richard Raul Feller, a Volusia County Planning and Land Development Regulation Commissioner, and found no probable cause to believe he violated Florida’s financial disclosure laws by failing to disclose a federal tax lien, that had not been reduced to a judgment, on his 2020 “Statement of Financial Interest” disclosure form.
The Commission considered a complaint filed against former Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Director of Cannabis, Holly Bell, and found no probable cause to believe she violated the state’s financial disclosure laws by failing to file her “Final Statement of Financial Interests” form within 60 days of leaving her public position.
The Commission considered a complaint filed against Town of White Springs Council member, Mary Berry, and found no probable cause to believe she abused her public position to obtain a disproportionate benefit or that she misused her position regarding the development of an ordinance allowing internet café gambling. Similarly, no probable cause was found to believe she had a conflicting employment or contractual relationship or that she had a voting conflict when she voted on the ordinance.
The Commission considered a complaint filed against Levy County Commissioner, John Meeks, and found probable cause to believe he had a voting conflict that would inure to the special private gain or loss of his business and that he failed to announce the nature of his conflict when he abstained from voting on measures and voted on consent agenda items that inured to the special private gain or loss of his hardware store. However, the Commission voted that no further action would be taken due to the particular circumstances of the matter.
A self-initiated investigation – required by statute – was considered by the Commission to determine if Earl Eugene Ketring, as a member of the Taylor County Planning Board, willfully failed to timely file his 2018 and 2019 “Statement of Financial Interests” disclosure forms, and a finding of no probable cause resulted.
In another self-initiated investigation—required by statute—involving Paul Chestnut, a member of the Flagler Beach Planning and Architectural Review Board, the Commission found no probable cause to believe he had willfully failed to timely file his 2018 “Statement of Financial Interests” disclosure form.
Similarly, the Commission found no probable cause to believe that Toshmon D. Stevens, as a Department of Corrections Assistant Detention Center Superintendent, willfully failed to timely file his 2018 “Statement of Financial Interests” disclosure form.
However, in another self-initiated investigation – required by statute – probable cause was found to believe John Polinsky, who serves on the Dorcas Fire District Board of Commissioners and is the District Fire Chief, willfully failed to file his 2018 “Statement of Financial Interests” disclosure form.
The Commission also reviewed and dismissed 27 ethics complaints for lacking legal sufficiency. These reviews are limited to questions of jurisdiction and determinations as to whether the contents of the complaint are adequate to allege a violation of the Code of Ethics or other laws within the Commission’s jurisdiction.