'Without consequences': Dozens of ethics cases are languishing on Gov. Ron DeSantis' desk
A backlog of nearly 30 recommended orders from the state's ethics board — imposing penalties on an array of public officials, several of which were high-profile cases — is languishing on the desk of Gov. Ron DeSantis.
All require final action from him, and all but seven of them arrived from the Florida Commission on Ethics since he took office.
The governor’s failure to act also means people who should have been removed from their positions are still in office, including a St. Cloud Community Redevelopment Agency board member whose term is up for renewal next week.
Even a $5,000 fine against DeSantis' Democratic rival for governor, former Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, has gone unaddressed.
Other high-profile cases in the backlog include a former Jacksonville-area public defender, a former Madeira Beach councilwoman and a former state fair authority director.
“That’s a huge concern because (the commission) is struggling to enforce the state’s ethics laws,” said Ben Wilcox, research director for Integrity Florida — a nonprofit, nonpartisan government ethics watchdog.
The commission takes its duty seriously, investigating and deliberating over the facts of each case before reaching a decision, Wilcox said.
And by failing to OK the commission’s recommendations or act on his own, “people are getting away with violating the state’s ethics law without consequences."
'It is up to the governor'
The commission is a quasi-judicial agency that investigates ethics complaints, hears witness testimony and deliberates before deciding on a finding of probable cause — whether it's more likely than not that a violation of law has occurred.
The person accused of breaking state ethics law can accept the finding and reach a settlement agreement with the commission, or challenge the probable cause finding before an administrative law judge. Then, the ethics commission considers the judge’s recommendation in reaching a final decision.
While the commission has the authority to recommend fines and sanctions, it’s up to the governor to accept, reject or modify those orders and then to have them carried out.
“The commission can only recommend penalties,” commission spokeswoman Kerrie Stillman said. "It is up to the governor to impose them. The collection of civil penalties cannot be conducted ... until then.”
Most of the final orders on the governor’s desk are settlement agreements that include an admission of a violation and an acceptance of the penalty. Seven of the pending final orders — one of which is on appeal — are holdovers from Gov. Rick Scott's administration, but the other 21 were issued after DeSantis took office.
The cases cover a period when Scott was running for the U.S. Senate and the first year in office for DeSantis, whose staff have had time to prepare two state budgets, dealt with the aftermath of hurricanes and sea level rise in South Florida, and whose general counsel has several lawsuits on its plate.
“Why is the governor sitting on those that he’s received?” Wilcox asked. “Does the governor have an issue with the findings of the Florida Commission on Ethics? Does he want to err on the side of state or government employees who have violated the state’s ethics laws?”
Wilcox also questioned whether these orders are low priorities of the governor or that he just doesn't take the ethics commission seriously: "This just is not a good message for the governor to be sending."
As of Thursday, the Governor’s Office had not responded to requests for comment.
Removal from office
Three of the pending orders involve the removal from office of people who deliberately and habitually failed to submit financial disclosure forms. That's after repeatedly being reminded that state law required them to do so.
The commission’s only recourse, based on a 2014 law, is to have them removed from office.
“They’ve been trying for years to get people to take seriously filing financial disclosure forms,” Wilcox explained. “Some are deliberately not filing and know they should be filing, and are aware of the ethics law and the consequences.”
One of the pending cases involves Joel Davis, a member of the St. Cloud Community Redevelopment Agency. His term is up for renewal next week. Davis has remained in office 18 months after the ethics commission recommended he be removed.
Davis, who also owns Davis Land Company, was found guilty of willfully failing to submit financial disclosure forms over several years, at one point racking up $1,500 in fines. The state charges a $25-a-day penalty for failing to file.
Davis, however, has filed an application to be reappointed to the CRA. The St. Cloud City Commission is scheduled to take up the matter on Thursday. Davis did not immediately return a call or email seeking comment.
Another case involves Cheryl Thomas-Hughes, a purchasing specialist for the Miami-Dade County Water and Sewer Department. Her responsibilities require her to file a financial disclosure form each year.
But the ethics commission found that she deliberately failed to file the form, despite repeatedly being told she must because she handles purchases over $20,000.
"When/if the governor signs the order and it is sent to Miami-Dade County, we will act accordingly," Jennifer Messemer, a spokeswoman for the city, said in an email.
The third involves Michael S. Murphy, former agent and manager of the Cooperative Producers Water Control District in Hendry County. At one point Murphy owed $7,725 in fines for failing to submit disclosure forms going back to 2008, and had $1,500 waived in 2007.
The commission found probable cause that he habitually did not file financial disclosure forms. A final order — issued August 3, 2016 — adopted the administrative law judge’s recommendation to remove Murphy from office.
Murphy has not worked for the district for several years, officials said.
Fines and public censures
The most notable pending fine is $5,000 against Gillum, the former Tallahassee mayor who ran as the Democratic candidate for governor in 2018 and lost to DeSantis by 30,000 votes. His case has been sitting on DeSantis' desk since June.
Gillum violated state law for accepting gifts connected to trips to Costa Rica and New York from Adam Corey, a former restaurant owner, developer and lobbyist who used to represent clients before the Tallahassee City Commission.
Barry Richard, Gillum's lawyer for the ethics case, said he has not thought about the case or been in touch with Gillum since the hearing.
He also couldn't recall how long it took to get a final order in past ethics cases he's handled, but added, "Everybody likes to get a final order and get (it) resolved quickly."
Also sitting on the governor's desk since March is a $6,000 fine against former Tallahassee City Manager Rick Fernandez. He failed to report a discount for his daughter’s wedding reception and accepted Florida State University football tickets from a lobbyist.
Other high-profile cases pending include the former executive director of the Florida State Fair Authority and a former Jacksonville public defender.
This story originally published to heraldtribune.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.