Florida Ethics Update: Commission on Ethics Determinations—April Meeting
April 27, 2023
By Caroline Klancke, Esq., Florida Ethics Institute.
During its meeting on Friday, April 21, 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 pre-probable cause settlement agreement entered into between the Commission’s Advocate and Town of Reddington Shores Commission member Jennie Blackburn. The Commission approved and adopted the settlement, finding that Ms. Blackburn filed inaccurate Form 1, “Statement of Financial Interests” financial disclosure filings for the years 2020 and 2021. A civil penalty of $1,000 will be recommended to the Governor for imposition.
The Commission granted the Advocate’s Motion to Dismiss Complaint filed against former Miami-Dade Community Council member Charles A. Safdie. The complaint investigation ensued after Mr. Safdie failed to file the required file financial disclosure filing (Form 1 “Statement of Financial Interests”) for the year 2018. In approving the Motion to Dismiss the Commission agreed with the analysis that, in light of additional evidence deduced in preparation for an administrative hearing and which indicated that Mr. Safdie had already been removed from his public position, the public interest would not be served by pursing the matter further.
The Commission also adopted two advisory opinions providing guidance to public officers. In the first advisory opinion, the Commission found that a City Council member would have a prohibited voting conflict if she voted on whether the City should proceed with a septic-to-sewer conversion project which would involve her own private residence as the vote could inure to her own special private gain or loss.
In the second opinion, the Commission provided guidance to Brevard County School District teachers and administrators who are also members and directors of the nonprofit corporation, the Brevard Alliance of Black School Educators (Brevard ABSE), regarding whether the School District’s purchase of an institutional membership with the nonprofit would give rise to prohibited conflicts of interest for the members. The Commission found that only those Brevard County School District administrators, such as the Superintendent, with the authority to approve purchasing and involved in the School District’s approval process for transactions with Brevard ABSE would have a prohibited conflict of interest. The Commission further opined that all other teachers and administrators who are members or directors of Brevard ABSE would not have a prohibited conflict.
During its closed session meeting (wherein confidential and exempt matters are addressed) the Commission took action on 31 matters. Ten of those matters were ethics complaints considered for probable cause. In a press release issued on April 26, 2023, the Commission issued the following findings.
The Commission considered an ethics complaint filed against St. Johns County Airport Authority Attorney, Douglas Burnett, and found no probable cause to believe that he abused his position to obtain a disproportionate benefit; misused his position as the Airport Authority Attorney by handling the review of rezoning matters within the bounds of the airport’s overlay district at the staff level; misused his position by not reporting an employee’s outside employment; that he had an employment or contractual relationship that conflicted with his public duties when he represented the Airport Authority and the developer; that he used information only available to him and gained by reason of his official position for his own benefit; or that he violated an additional ethics standard applicable to government attorneys by providing legal services to a developer who was seeking approval from the Airport Authority.
The Commission considered a complaint filed against the former Director of Compliance for the City of Destin, Joey Forgione, and found that there was no probable cause to believe that he abused his position to obtain a disproportionate benefit or that he misused his public position by owning and operating two private businesses, during City business hours, and while he was employed by the City.
In a complaint filed against Randall Fine, Florida House of Representatives member for District 33, the Commission rejected the recommendation of its Advocate and found probable cause to believe that Mr. Fine violated the ethics laws by abusing his position to obtain a disproportionate benefit and that he misused his position by threatening to take away State funding over a personal feud with a Brevard County School Board member, and that he interfered in a councilmember’s response to a public records request for communications related to the dispute.
The Commission considered a related complaint filed against West Melbourne
Beach City Council member John Dittmore and found no probable cause to believe that Mr. Dittmore abused his position to obtain a disproportionate benefit or that he misused his position by cooperating with Representative Fine to pressure other elected officials to act in a certain manner.
In a complaint filed against City of St. Petersburg Mayor, Ken Welch, the Commission found no probable cause to believe that he misused his position or violated the anti-nepotism law regarding the hiring of his relative to a position within the City.
The Commission considered a complaint filed against Levy County Commissioner, Russel “Rock” Meeks, Jr., and found probable cause to believe that he failed to file accurate 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021 Form 6 financial disclosure filings. However, the Commission elected to take no further action based on his having amended his disclosure filings to correct them and the particular circumstances of the matter.
In a complaint filed against Levy County Commissioner, Matthew Brooks, the Commission found probable cause on allegations that he failed to file accurate 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021 Form 6 financial disclosures filings—but elected to take no further action based on his having amended his disclosure filings to correct them and the particular circumstances of the matter. However, probable cause was found on an allegation Mr. Brooks had a voting conflict on a measure that would inure to his special private gain or loss—but the Commission elected to take no further action on the matter based on the recommendation of the Commission Advocate. Additional allegations that Mr. Brooks had a prohibited conflict of interest arising from doing business with his own agency or engaging in conflicting business or contractual relationship regarding the County’s purchase of janitorial services from a business in which he has an ownership interest, were dismissed with a finding of no probable cause.
The Commission found no probable cause in a complaint filed against a member of the Neptune Beach City Council, Joshua Messinger, alleging that he abused his position to obtain a disproportionate benefit, misused his position, and used information only available to him as a Council member regarding discussions and approval for private parking in the City’s right-of-way or regarding information about software that would help monitor short term rentals that would be in violation of City Code in an area he owned property.
In a complaint filed against, Holmes County Commissioner, Brandon Newsome, the Commission found no probable cause on allegations that he abused his position to obtain a disproportionate benefit, misused his position, or had a voting conflict regarding the County’s regulation of garbage services and the need to have a franchise agreement for his roll-off dumpster service business.
In a Commission-initiated investigation required by statute, the Commission determined that probable cause existed to believe Broward County Public Schools Principal, Michelle A. Laurent, willfully failed to timely file her 2018 Form 1 “State of Financial Interests” disclosure. However, the Commission elected to take no further action due to the particular circumstances of the matter.
The Commission voted to grant the Advocate’s Motion to Dismiss a statutorily required, Commission-initiated investigation concerning whether the former Office of the Governor Systems Project Analyst, Anthony Zoghbi’s failure to file a Form 1, “Statement of Financial Interests,” disclosure for the year 2017 was willful. The Motion to Dismiss indicated that Mr. Zoghbi previously filed a financial disclosure appeal with the Commission that resulted in the maximum automatic fine of $1,500 being rescinded. As the $1,500 maximum fine is necessary to invoke and maintain the Commission’s jurisdiction, the Commission on Ethics dismissed the matter based upon the lack of jurisdiction to proceed.
The Commission also voted to grant a request by the complainant to withdraw a complaint filed against Florida Department of Transportation Director of Transportation Development, Stacy Miller.
The Commission also reviewed and dismissed 19 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.