If you are a public official, public employee, citizen ethics advocate, or attorney working in the areas of government or administrative law, this book is for you. Buy your copy today at www.floridaethics.org. 100% of book sales will benefit the Florida Ethics Institute, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization committed to ensuring that a public office is a public trust by providing ethics education and guidance to public officers and employees as well as members of the public and the media.
The Florida Ethics Law Handbook is the only guide written by an ethics attorney with more than a decade of experience interpreting and enforcing the Code of Ethics for Public Officers and Employees on the State level and published by an independent, non-partisan nonprofit formed to advance ethics in government through education. Further, the Handbook uses an array of examples taken from ethics complaint proceedings, advisory opinions, and appellate courts cases to help public officers and employees, practitioners, and the public they serve to better understand the law.
During its public session meeting on Friday, January 27, 2023, the Florida Commission on Ethics, the constitutionally created independent agency tasked with interpreting and enforcing the State’s ethics laws, approved a settlement agreement involving Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh over her role in organizing an exclusive COVID-19 vaccine event.
The ethics complaint investigation arose after the Commission on Ethics received 17 ethics complaints from concerned citizens against Baugh alleging that she misused her official position by coordinating a pop-up COVID vaccination clinic in early 2021 offering a limited number of vaccinations only to Lakewood Ranch residents in certain ZIP codes in violation of the Manatee County vaccine distribution policy and by putting her name at the top of the Manatee County list of vaccine recipients.
Following the Ethics Commission’s finding of Probable Cause on December 8, 2021, the matter was referred to the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings for a full administrative trial to determine if Baugh’s actions violated the constitutional prohibition against abusing one’s official position to gain a disproportionate benefit and the Code of Ethics prohibition against misusing one’s official position. Prior to the commencement of the administrative trial, the parties negotiated the settlement agreement considered by the Commission on January 27, 2023, in lieu of further proceedings.
In the settlement agreement, Baugh acknowledged that she misused her official position and resources by deviating from Manatee County’s vaccine distribution policy to benefit specific individuals and zip codes. In light of this violation of the Code of Ethics, Baugh further agreed to be publicly censured and reprimanded and to pay a fine of $8,000. During the deliberation of the settlement agreement, Commissioner Wengay Newton, Sr., argued for the upward adjustment of the penalty in light of what he asserted was a clear disproportionate benefit to Baugh and stated that “Ray Charles can see what went on here.” Following a spirited discussion, the settlement was approved by the Ethics Commission with Commissioner Newton and one other member voting in opposition.
Florida Rep. Dan Daley is requesting that the State Auditor General investigate the North Springs Improvement District, a public agency that provides water and sewer service to roughly 40,000 residents in northwest Broward County. Read more at FLCGA News…
During its closed session meeting on Friday, December 2, 2022, the Florida Commission on Ethics, the constitutionally created independent agency tasked with interpreting and enforcing the State’s ethics laws, took action on 28 matters. Twelve of those matters were considered for probable cause.
If the Commission finds that there is probable cause to believe there has been a violation of the ethics laws, the complaint becomes public and the matter is referred to the Division of Administrative Hearings (DOAH) for a public hearing—which is similar to a trail—to be held before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), unless the matter is settled pursuant to stipulated agreement reached between the parties. If the Commission finds that there is no probable cause to believe that there has been a violation of the ethics laws, the matter will be dismissed.
In a press release issued on December 7, 2022, the Commission released the following findings.
Probable cause was found to exist in a complaint involving the City of Naples Mayor,Teresa Heitmann, alleging that she had misused her public position by attempting to steer City employees and resources to investigate matters unrelated to City business and for the benefit herself and another individual. Probable cause was also found as to an allegation that Ms. Heitmann failed to disclose a gift of legal services valued in excess of $100 on a Form 9, Quarterly Gift Disclosure. However, the Commission found no probable cause to believe Ms. Heitmann violated the constitutional amendment prohibiting abuse of office to obtain a disproportionate benefit.
Probable cause was found to exist in a complaint filed against a former Florida Department of Education (FDOE) Program Specialist IV, Justin David Feller, alleging that he violated the constitutional amendment prohibiting abuse of a public position to obtain a disproportionate benefit. The Commission also found probable cause to believe he misused his position by keeping FDOE equipment at his home during the pandemic that he used in his personal capacity and by obtaining gift cards intended for the purchase of educational training and using them to make personal purchases, as well as requesting payment and reimbursement for training he never provided.
The Commission also considered related complaints filed against FDOE Program Specialists IV, Daniel Ring and Kenneth Edwards, and found no probable cause to believe that they had misused their public positions or obtained a disproportionate benefit as the evidence indicated that they had used FDOE equipment and gift cards for official business and returned public resources/equipment to the FDOE offices as soon as they were authorized to do so.
The Commission rejected the recommendation of its Advocate and found probable cause in a complaint filed against Broward County Sheriff, GREG TONY, alleging that he misused his public position when he provided false information or did not disclose information during the appointment process for his service as Broward County Sheriff; when completing notarized documents submitted to FDLE while serving as Broward County Sheriff; and when applying to renew his driver’s license while serving as a law enforcement officer.
The Commission considered three self-initiated investigations resulting from the random audits of executive branch lobbying compensation reports filed in 2020 and found probable cause to believe that the Executive Branch Lobbying Firms, Capitol Strategy Group and Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, PC, filed inaccurate or incomplete lobbying compensation reports. The Commission found no probable cause to believe the Executive Branch Lobbying Firm, People Who Think, failed to register as a lobbyist in 2020 or that the firm violated the law by filing one or more inaccurate 2020 quarterly lobbying compensation reports.
The Commission found no probable cause in a complaint filed against City Attorney for Lake City, Fred Koberlein, alleging that he represented clients before the units of local government to which he provides legal services.
The Commission found no probable cause in a complaint filed against Lake City Community Redevelopment Advisory Council member, Lester McKellum, alleging that he had a prohibited conflict of interest arising from a business relationship after he requested that the City Commission make two separate payments to a private corporation in which he served a compensated officer. No probable cause also was found on an allegation that he had a conflicting employment or contractual relationship that created a continuing or frequently recurring conflict between his private interests and the performance of his public duties. The Commission also found no probable cause on a voting conflict allegation related to the vote for payments to be made to the private corporation for which served as a compensated officer.
The Commission considered a complaint filed against Broward County Public School Director of Athletics and Student Activities, Shawn Cerra, and found no probable cause as to the allegation that he solicited something of value based on the understanding that it would influence his official actions when he accepted lodging and attended a party hosted by a longtime personal friend, who was the cap and gown vendor for the School District. The Commission also found no probable cause to believe he accepted a thing of value from a District vendor when he knew or should have known the item was being given to influence him in his official public capacity. No probable cause also was found on an allegation that he misused his position to benefit the vendor. Allegations that Mr. Cerra accepted a prohibited gift from a vendor or failed to disclose reportable gifts in excess of $100 on a Form 9, Quarterly Gift Disclosure, when he spent time at the vendor’s home and attended the party, were also dismissed with a finding of no probable cause.
In a related matter, the Commission found no probable cause in a complaint filed against Broward County School Board member, Donna Korn, alleging that she solicited something of value based on the understanding that it would influence her official action when she accepted lodging from a cap and gown vendor. The Commission also found no probable cause to believe she accepted a thing of value when she knew or should have known it was given to influence her. Allegations Ms. Korn accepted a prohibited gift from a vendor or failed to disclose reportable gifts in excess of $100 on a Form 9, Quarterly Gift Disclosure, were also dismissed with a finding of no probable cause.
The Commission also reviewed and dismissed 14 complaints for lack of 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.
During its public session meeting, the Commission considered and adopted an advisory opinion requested by a member of the Monroe County Board of County Commissioners wherein she was advised that a prohibited conflict of interest would not be created if a now terminated contract, executed prior to the member’s appointment to public office, and formed between her Board and her private employer, was reinstated through a litigation settlement agreement. Guidance was also provided regarding whether the member would have a prohibited conflict of interest if amendments were made to the contract as well as potential voting conflicts considerations.
The Commission also considered and dismissed a Petition for Costs & Attorney Fees (Petition) filed by a member of the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority Board of Directors, Cara Higgins, against the complainants in previously dismissed ethics complaints filed against her. The Petition was dismissed because it did not substantively allege that the individuals who filed the complaints against Ms. Higgins knew their complaints contained false allegations when filed or that they exhibited reckless disregard for whether the complaint contained false allegations material to a violation of the ethics laws.
The Commission voted to grant the Advocate’s Motion to Dismiss a statutorily required, self-initiated investigation concerning a willful failure to file a Form 1, Statement of Financial Interests, for the year 2017 by Senior Vice President of Human Resources and Chief Experience Officer at Jackson Health System, Michelle Kligman, reasoning that she did not have the required purchasing authority for her to be required to file financial disclosure for 2017, a condition necessary to maintain jurisdiction in a willfulness investigation.
The Florida Ethics Institute would like to welcome all to join us in the celebration of Global Ethics Day on October 19th. Global Ethics Day was established in 2014 by the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and since that time has been celebrated by citizens, businesses, nonprofits, professional organizations, and governments from over 75 countries. This year’s theme of “Ethics Empowered” is designed to encourage discussion on how collective ethical action can help address the global challenges that impact us all.
The Florida Ethics Institute’s Executive Director, Caroline Klancke, stated that “Global Ethics Day affords all of us with the opportunity to reflect on the role ethics plays in our society. The ethics laws in Florida empower our citizens with the ability to monitor those who govern and to ensure that ethics in government is achieved on this day and every day.” Ms. Klancke continued “It is the mission of the Florida Ethics Institute to help advance ethics in government and to assist all public officials to serve citizens ethically and with integrity.”
Running the water district that serves Parkland and Coral Springs has become an incredibly lucrative government job, a place where the official who manages it has made great sums of money in jaw-dropping ways.
Among the personal windfalls for North Springs Improvement District chief Rod Colon is the pocketing of a $240,000 Realtor’s commission on the sale of a $4 million parcel of his own agency’s land, an FLCGA News investigation has found.
As then-deputy district manager of NSID, which provides water services to 40,000 residents and business clients in northwest Broward, it was already part of Colon’s job to conduct the land sale. But he was added as the Realtor shortly after he received his broker’s license from the state. Records show the parcel was listed for 13 days and that Colon received a single offer for the land.
David Gray, who was president of NSID’s board at the time, said he objected to Colon’s profiting from the public agency but didn’t have the power to stop it.
“I was shocked about the whole concept,” said Gray. “It wasn’t okay. In my mind it was unethical.”
Shortly after Colon collected the six-figure commission in 2017, he formed a company in his Plantation home that soon snapped up $16 million in construction contracts from his agency over the next few years.
Colon, who is now NSID’s top manager at an annual public salary of about $150,000, insists the real estate commission and lucrative construction contracts were all above-board.
“If people want to say, ‘he took advantage of a loophole,’ I don’t care. People can say that,” Colon told FLCGA News. “But don’t say it’s illegal.”
Colon’s “loophole” is a provision in the Florida Ethics Code that exempts special taxing districts like NSID from the law that prohibits public employees from securing contracts with their own agencies. The exemption, however, says that all other ethics laws apply and that any conduct that frustrates the intent of the ethics code would be considered unlawful.
Caroline Klancke, executive director of the Florida Ethics Institute, pointed to another provision in the ethics code that might apply.
“There is a prohibition against misusing your public position,” said Klancke, an attorney who formerly served as general counsel and deputy executive director of the state ethics commission. “It prohibits all public officials from misusing their position to gain a special private benefit. There is not an exception to that.”
Klancke said public officials who cite the exemption would be wise to obtain a written analysis from the Commission on Ethics. Colon didn’t take that step. Instead he obtained guarded approval from an NSID-hired attorney to obtain the contracts in 2017. In his letter, attorney Michael Joblove warned Colon that he remained subject to the laws that forbid public employees from “corruptly” using their official position for personal gain.
Since FLCGA News began its investigation of the district this year, the Florida Ethics Commission and Florida Attorney General’s Office have received several complaints about the district’s unusual business practices. The current status of those complaints is not a matter of public record. However, we have seen no evidence that any state authority is seriously investigating the matter.
“He planned it”
When Gray, who served as president of the NSID board from 2011 to 2016, tried to stop Colon from securing the real estate commission, he was outmatched.
“It was bizarre to find out how much power an unelected guy who manages the (water) plant has,” said Gray. “He controls who’s going to be on the board. It was amazing to me.”
Gray said he initially approached Colon about selling 25 acres of district-owned land on Loxahatchee Road in Parkland in 2015 because it was no longer needed. The parcel was purchased in 2011 for $2.6 million.
“I instructed Rod to find a buyer for the land,” said Gray, who works as construction director for local homebuilder GL Homes.
Several months later, the subject arose at a March 2016 board meeting.
“Instead of getting a proposal to sell the land, we got a contract to hire a Realtor,” Gray said.
Then came another surprise.
“[The contract] actually stated that [Colon] was going to be the Realtor,” Gray said. “I didn’t even know he was a Realtor.”
Colon listed his brokerage firm as the K Company Realty, which allows its Realtors to take full commissions in exchange for relatively small monthly and transactional fees.
Colon’s state real estate licensure
Despite his reservations, Gray joined the board’s other two members in voting to approve the contract. He said he quickly regretted doing so. Later, he learned Colon had received his real estate license just one month earlier.
“I was so upset about it that I immediately called to have the vote rescinded,” Gray said. “I told it to [Colon’s] face, ‘You are not going to do this. We are going to reverse this.’ I thought it was a no-brainer.”
At the next meeting, Gray made a motion to rescind Colon’s listing agreement. It died for lack of a second.
Colon said he doesn’t remember Gray instructing him to sell the land. He said he suspects Gray had that discussion with Doug Hyche, the district manager at the time. Colon said it was Hyche’s idea to hire someone to broker the land deal.
“I asked if my brokerage firm could do it,” Colon said. “I had a license, so that means I was qualified. Would any other Realtor in the world know more about the [land sale] than me?”
Gray said Colon ruled the district, not Hyche, who retired in 2019 and could not be reached for comment.
“I dealt with Rod,” Gray said. “I never dealt with Doug.”
Multiple former NSID employees echo Gray’s observation, telling FLCGA News that Colon was the power behind the throne.
Colon said the perception was a result of Hyche’s management style, which he characterized as delegatory and “genius.”
“Some people work better at home,” Colon explained. “Doug was one of those people who do a damn good job and didn’t need to be here to do it.”
“One of the best parcels of land”
Colon listed the parcel at $5 million in March 2016, according to MLS records, just 23 days after receiving his real estate license.
“25 acres of government owned land that would need to be rezoned for other use,” read the cash-only listing. “Heavy residential development in the area. One of the last parcels of land in Northern Broward.”
The property was listed for just 13 days before Brian Tuttle, a local developer, agreed to purchase it for $4 million. When Colon presented the offer to the board, he emphasized that the sale price was $1.4 million more than what NSID had paid.
“This is the only offer I have received at this time and is a relatively good profit,” he said, according to the meeting’s minutes.
When asked by a board member if he’d approached larger home-building companies, Colon said “no one else submitted an offer.”
Colon told FLGCA News that he “marketed the hell out of” the land. But when asked where exactly it was advertised, he had no answer.
“I don’t know, I have to look,” he said. “We did market it. I reached out to everyone I could possibly think of.”
He denied he obtained his real estate license to cash in on his agency’s land sale. “It wasn’t just for this [NSID land sale],” he said of the license.
The April 2016 meeting proved to be Gray’s last stand. After failing to stop Colon’s real-estate commission deal, he resigned as NSID president. He said with board elections coming up in June of that year, he stood no chance of retaining his seat after challenging Colon.
“[Colon] controls who’s going to be on the board,” said Gray.
NSID elections are little noticed by the public. Each homeowner gets one vote, but large landowners, often developers, get one vote per acre. Gray said those landowners amass large numbers of votes, over which Colon exerted influence by proxy.
Colon denied that. He conceded that proxy votes can dominate the elections, but said those landowners make up their own minds on how to vote. In 2016, the dominant force was large home builder Lennar, he said. An email for comment sent to the homebuilder was not returned.
“I don’t control anything, [the landowners] do,” said Colon. “They had all the power.”
A slow legislative step
The Florida Legislature last year passed a bill that will bring NSID into the general election and eliminate the undue power of large landowners, giving all voters an equal say. But the law doesn’t take full effect until 2030. Colon said he plans to retire in 2028.
Rep. Dan Daley, who sponsored the bill, said NSID hired heavyweight lobbyists to fight reform attempts leading to the slow-motion compromise.
“Once they realized I wasn’t going away, they were willing to negotiate with me,” Daley said. “I don’t want to say fiefdom, but that’s what a lot of these entities have become, and [their boards] get elected by the largest landowners.”
Dan Daley, campaign photo
After Gray’s resignation, board member Mark Capwell became president. Colon had known Capwell for years. He’d also employed him.
Capwell was vice president of R&A Asset Recovery, a Colon-owned company, when he joined the board in 2012. Capwell resigned from R&A six months before becoming NSID’s president.
In an interview, Capwell downplayed his past business relationship with Colon.
“It was just a company,” he said. “I don’t think it made any money.”
NSID also employed Capwell’s then-wife, according to govsalaries.com. And during his tenure as president, Capwell’s son was hired at NSID and became a water plant operator.
“If his wife was hired, I don’t remember that,” Colon said. “His son is a great water plant operator, one of the best we have.”
Asked if hiring a board member’s relatives presented a conflict of interest for the district, Colon lost his temper with the FLCGA News reporter.
“You only want to f— with peoples’ lives,” he yelled on the phone. “What the f— is wrong with you?”
He repeated those lines multiple times before adding, “What’s going to happen when your life gets f—ed with? You’re not going to like it.”
Asked if that was a threat, Colon replied, “No it’s not a threat, but you’re not going to like it.”
Colon said that as a licensed private investigator, he had looked into the FLCGA News reporter and knew everything there was to know about him.
He vaguely threatened a lawsuit, which wouldn’t be his first. Colon has filed two defamation lawsuits in the past year, one a “John Doe” suit against an anonymous activist known as “Ed Connely,” and another against Eileen Maltese, the wife of a former NSID employee who criticized Colon in Facebook comments.
The true identity of Ed Connely remains a mystery, but Colon told FLCGA News he had uncovered who it was. He said he didn’t want to provide the name because he believed the activist had developed so many enemies that someone would physically harm that person and Colon didn’t want to see that happen.
A few weeks after claiming he knew the activist’s identity, the anonymous lawsuit was dropped in lieu of “further investigation.” The Maltese lawsuit remains active.
In a more recent phone interview, Colon abandoned his at-times combative tone and said he wanted to hire the same FLCGA News reporter to do research for his private investigation business after the coverage of NSID has died down “and nothing has happened because there were no laws broken.”
“Everything doesn’t need to be in writing”
Asked about his outside work, considering that his job was to sell the district’s land and oversee NSID’s construction work, Colon answered, “That’s a very good question.”
“With my experience, with the work I’ve done, I know this district inside out, better than anyone,” he said. “No one else could have come and did what we did. The district went ahead and saved money. That’s my opinion.”
But when it came time for Colon to report the real estate commission and the first several millions of dollars in contracts on his financial disclosure statements, NSID begged off. Less than a month before his 2017 financial disclosure form was due, NSID clerk Brenda Richard emailed the Florida Ethics Commission to ask that Colon be taken off the required filing list because he didn’t have purchasing authority above the required $15,000 without board approval.
The ethics commission granted the request. However, records show that as then-acting assistant treasurer of NSID, Colon had signatory powers with full purchasing authority. Colon told FLCGA News that although he had that power on paper, he couldn’t sign for NSID payments without the approval of the then-district manager, Hyche.
He said he didn’t know if that policy was in writing.
“I’m sure it was in writing somewhere, but if it wasn’t, it doesn’t matter,” Colon said. “It’s what I’m telling you. Everything doesn’t need to be in writing.”
Muted concerns from Parkland politicians
Local elected officials have largely remained tight-lipped about NSID’s business practices. When asked about Colon’s lucrative dealings, Broward Mayor Michael Udine, whose district includes Parkland, refused to comment directly.
Broward Mayor Michael Udine wouldn’t speak on Colon’s actions directly.
“No public official should be profiting from their position in any way,” Udine said. “Nobody should use their office in any way that [provides them special benefit].”
State Rep. Christine Hunchofsky, who like Udine is a former Parkland mayor, was a bit more direct.
“No public official should abuse their position in order to make financial gains,” Hunchosky said. “And the laws should reflect that. My office is reviewing the statutes.”
Hunchofsky said she intends to draft legislation that will strike down the ethics exemption, or loophole, that Colon cites as cover.
David Gray, the former NSID president, said closing that loophole should be a priority not only for Broward politicians, but for those across the state.
“Because you know if it’s going on here,” said Gray, “other people are playing the game somewhere else.”
During its closed session meeting on Friday, September 9, 2022, the Florida Commission on Ethics, the constitutionally created independent agency tasked with interpreting and enforcing the State’s ethics laws, took action on 19 matters. Nine of those matters were considered for probable cause. In a press release issued on September 14, 2022, the Commission released the following findings.
The Commission rejected the recommendation of its Advocate and found probable cause to believe Broward County Sheriff, Gregory Tony, misused his public position when he provided false information or did not disclose information during the hiring process for his employment with the Coral Springs Police Department; when he provided false information or did not disclose information during the appointment process for his service as Broward County Sheriff; when completing a notarized Form 68 submitted to FDLE while serving as Broward County Sheriff; and when applying to renew his driver’s license while serving as a law enforcement officer. The prohibition against misusing public position prohibits public officers and employees from corruptly using or attempting to use their public office, or the resources thereof, to secure a special privilege, benefit, or exemption for themselves or others.
Probable cause was found to believe former Broward County Transit Director of Maintenance, James Fourcade, misused his position when his department prepared bid specifications for brake refurbishing kits that included terms that would benefit a particular vendor. In addition, probable cause was found to believe Mr. Fourcade provided a competitive advantage to the vendor when he provided them with information not available to the general public.
Probable cause was found to believe former St. Johns County Utility Department Manager, Richard Nelson, violated the constitutional amendment prohibiting abuse of office to obtain a disproportionate benefit and that he misused his position when he used his authority to ensure the County would make purchases from his private business, Technical Field Services, Inc. (TFS). Probable cause was found to believe Mr. Nelson also had a conflict of interest arising from the County doing business with TFS. An allegation he had a conflicting employment or contractual relationship based on his private business’ (TFS) interaction with the County also resulted in a finding of probable cause.
The Commission found probable cause to believe former Saint Augustine Beach City Commissioner, Ernesto Torres, violated the constitutional amendment prohibiting abuse of office to obtain a disproportionate benefit, solicited a favor from law enforcement with the understanding his official action or judgment would be influenced, and attempted to use his public position for his and his wife’s personal benefit when he interfered with a DUI traffic stop involving his wife.
The Commission held a probable cause hearing on multiple allegations regarding currently suspended Sumter County Commissioner, Oren Miller. Probable cause was found to believe Mr. Miller violated Florida’s gift law by failing to timely report donations for his legal fund received during the fourth quarter of 2021 and first quarter of 2022. Probable cause also was found on an allegation that Mr. Miller failed to file an accurate CE Form 9 for quarter ending June 2022. The Commission found no probable cause on three additional allegations: accepting things of value when he should have known it was given to influence his official action; soliciting donations from lobbyists or vendors of Sumter County; and knowingly accepting a contribution exceeding $100 from a vendor doing business with Sumter County.
After reviewing the results of a self-initiated investigation – required by statute – the Commission found probable cause to believe Robert E. Fergen, Division Chief for the Miami-Dade Water Operations and Maintenance Division, willfully failed to timely file his 2018 Form 1. However, no further action will be taken by the Commission due to the particular circumstances of the matter.
In another self-initiated investigation – required by statute – the Commission found probable cause to believe that Teandra Evette Calixte, a principal with Miami-Dade County Public Schools, willfully failed to timely file her 2018 Form 1. However, no further action will be taken by the Commission due to the particular circumstances of the matter.
The Commission rejected the recommendation of its Advocate and found no probable cause to believe Osceola County School Board Member, Jon Arguello, violated Florida’s Constitution and disclosure laws by filing an inaccurate 2020 Form 6.
The Commission considered a complaint filed against Miriam R. Hill, Ocean Highway and Port Authority Commissioner. No probable cause was found to believe she violated the constitutional amendment prohibiting abuse of office to obtain a disproportionate benefit or that she misused her position when handling a grant application for the Port Authority. No probable cause was found on an allegation she used information not available to the general public for her benefit during the grant application process.
The Commission also reviewed and dismissed 10 complaints for lack of 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.
During its public session meeting, the Commission considered and took final action regarding proposed joint stipulation settlements in three separate matters. The Commission took final action and adopted a Joint Stipulation between Town of Redington Shores Mayor, Marybeth Henderson, and the Commission Advocate, entered into prior to a finding of probable cause. The Commission voted to enter a final order finding no probable cause regarding Ms. Henderson’s 2016 disclosure and finding Ms. Henderson violated the financial disclosure laws by filing inaccurate 2017 and 2018 Form 6 disclosures. A civil penalty of $750 and public censure and reprimand will be recommended for imposition by the Governor.
The Commission also adopted a settlement agreement between the Commission Advocate and Celso Alfonso, a candidate for the Florida Senate. The agreement, filed prior to a finding of probable cause, finds Mr. Alfonso violated Florida’s Constitution and disclosure laws by filing an inaccurate 2019 Form 6. The Commission recommended a civil penalty of $250 be imposed by the Governor.
The Commission considered a settlement agreement entered into between the Commission Advocate and Wakulla County Commissioner, Randall Merritt. Mr. Merritt agreed he violated the Florida Constitution and financial disclosure laws by filing an inaccurate 2019 Form 6. A civil penalty of $1,000 and public censure and reprimand will be recommended for imposition by the Governor.
The Commission voted to issue a final order rescinding a previous final order and adopting an Amended Joint Stipulation between the Commission Advocate and Omari Hardy, former Lake Worth Beach City Commissioner and former State Representative. The Amended Joint Stipulation modified where the matter would be referred for penalty imposition. The terms of the penalty remain the same as adopted at the Commission’s July 27, 2022 meeting, which were a civil penalty of $1,000 and public censure and reprimand. The recommended penalty will be referred to the Governor for imposition.
The Commission granted the Advocate’s Motion to Dismiss a complaint filed against Town Clerk, Administrator/Clerk to the Special Master, and Public Records Custodian for the Town of Yankeetown, Sherri MacDonald.
The Commission also considered and adopted a formal advisory opinion requested by a member of the Board of Commissioners of the North Broward Hospital District. The opinion found that a prohibited conflict of interest under the conflicting employment or contractual relationships provision of the Code of Ethics would not be created if the member participated in discussions and decisions regarding the District’s selection of an electronic health records (EHR) provider, reasoning that neither the member, nor his company (that assists hospitals with healthcare revenue cycle management), have an employment or contractual relationship with any EHR database company. The Commission further found that a voting conflict would not exist, pursuant to these facts, were the member to vote on the matter. The Commission also cautioned the member regarding the existence of, and compliance with, the misuse of public office prohibition as well as the constitutional prohibition against abuse of public office to obtain a disproportionate benefit—when expressing his position and opinions on the matter outside of District board meetings.
The Commission considered and approved rulemaking involving necessary updates to Chapter 34-8, Florida Administrative Code, and incorporated materials.
The Commission also considered and adopted its Legislative recommendations in advance of the 2023 Legislative Session which begins March 7, 2023.
During its meeting on Friday, September 9, 2022, the Florida Commission on Ethics, the constitutionally created independent agency tasked with enforcing the State’s ethics laws, adopted its goals for the 2023 Legislative Session. The 2023 Legislative Session begins March 7th and committee weeks will commence in December or January. Thus, the Ethics Commission is preparing early to ensure that it can take positions on possible legislation affecting the Ethics Commission or the State’s Code of Ethics.
The Commission unanimously approved legislative recommendations including those seeking to close loopholes in the conflicts of interest prohibition against conflicting employment and contractual relationships as well as the voting conflicts law, require enhanced financial disclosure for local elected officials, afford the agency with greater discretion to close certain matters, consistency concerning the new ethics training requirement applicable to CRA board members, tools to protect ethics complainants against adverse retaliation for filing a complaint, and increased penalties for ethics violations. The Commission also expressed its intention to support new legislation addressing issues involved in the electronic filing of financial disclosures.
Further, the Commission adopted positions in opposition to any proposed legislation seeking to weaken the conflicts of interest provisions prohibiting public officials from representing clients before their own public board and any relaxation of the gifts and expenditure prohibitions which currently prevent certain public officers and employees from accepting donations from lobbyists associated with their own illness or injury or that of their child.
Of note is the Commission’s proposals regarding the voting conflicts law. The voting conflicts law currently permits state and local elected officials to participate in the discussion of a measure in which they have a conflict without first revealing the existence of that conflict until the vote is taken. The Commission would like the voting conflicts law amended to ensure that the official must declare their conflict before participating in the discussion of the measure.
The Commission also seeks to have the voting conflicts law applicable to state officers amended to require abstention when a measure benefits their employer. Currently, the law only requires state officers to abstain when the measure affects them personally, but not when it affects their employer, relative, or others. The Commission expressed that “the voting conflict standard should be the same for everyone, whether the official is appointed or elected and whether the official is a state or local official[.]”
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