Florida ethics board plans hearing in Miami mayor’s gift case, tosses second complaint

The state ethics commission dismissed a complaint against Miami Mayor Francis Suarez last week that raised concerns over his use of city police officers as his private security while traveling the country campaigning for president last year.

The Florida Commission on Ethics announced the decision in a press release Wednesday. The commission did not investigate the allegations against the mayor, which were based on reporting from the Miami New Times. Rather, the complaint was dismissed “for lack of legal sufficiency” — meaning, a review of the complaint determined that even if the allegations were true, the case would either not fall under the commission’s jurisdiction or the alleged activities would not amount to a violation of state ethics laws.

“There is a public purpose for the provision of protective services to a public officer, even when he travels,” the commission noted in its dismissal order. The complaint did not allege that Suarez had pressured city staff to allocate city resources for his security detail, the order noted. Absent such allegations of misconduct or corruption, the commission concluded that city was within its right to provide a taxpayer-funded protection detail to the mayor.

Suarez is still the subject of a second, ongoing inquiry by the state ethics commission into his attendance at high-priced sporting events, which has been the focus of some of the Miami Herald’s ongoing coverage. Ethics officials recently completed their months-long investigation and a hearing date is expected to be set in the coming weeks regarding that case.

The ongoing inquiry is based on a complaint made by the same person who filed the complaint that was dismissed last week. The dismissal will have no impact on the still-open case. The Herald has not previously reported on the dismissed complaint.

The mayor’s office put out a statement Wednesday evening touting the ethics commission’s recent decision to dismiss the complaint against him, saying it proved “once again that the mayor continues to act properly, following all laws and regulations.”

Suarez is facing multiple other investigations into his business relationships, as well as calls for his resignation over concerns he is using his public office for private gain. In a statement Wednesday morning, the Florida Democratic Party demanded that the mayor step down following a Herald report that the mayor’s office had pushed a no-bid city contract to benefit a partner of a company paying him $20,000 per month.

Suarez did not comment on the Herald’s reporting or the call for Suarez’s resignation. But later that same day, the mayor’s office issued its statement about the ethics decision, which suggested the dismissed complaint was part of a “vicious, dishonest smear campaign led by a small group of special interests” that amounted to a “coordinated coup attempt.”

“Mayor Suarez will continue to serve the greater interests of the City of Miami and its residents, despite false and negative attacks as he works to continue making Miami America’s greatest city,” the statement concluded.

The dismissed complaint was filed by Thomas Kennedy, the same activist — and former Florida delegate to the Democratic National Committee — who had also filed a separate complaint with the ethics commission earlier last year. That complaint was based on Herald reporting that raised questions about who paid for the mayor’s attendance at Miami’s Formula 1 Grand Prix events and the 2022 World Cup, where Suarez was pictured with soccer star David Beckham, a registered lobbyist.

Kennedy’s first complaint — which was found to be legally sufficient in September — triggered an investigation into whether Suarez’s attendance at those events violated state laws prohibiting elected officials from accepting expensive gifts from lobbyists or anyone doing business with the city.

That investigation concluded in January, according to emails Kennedy shared with the Herald, and a hearing is tentatively scheduled for March 8 in Tallahassee. The findings of ethics investigations are confidential and exempt from public record disclosure laws until the commission makes a decision.

Kennedy filed the same complaint about the sporting event tickets with the county ethics commission last year. But that commission — which is separate from the state commission and governed by slightly different rules — deemed the complaint legally insufficient and declined to investigate because Kennedy had not personally witnessed the alleged violations.

State ethics laws do not have a personal knowledge requirement, allowing Floridians to file complaints based on news reports and other second-hand information. That could soon change, however, as state lawmakers consider an amendment to the ethics code that would require a complainant to have first-hand knowledge of an ethics violation, similar to what is required by Miami-Dade County code.

Miami Herald state government reporter Ana Ceballos contributed reporting.