Government watchdogs warn Florida legislation would have chilling effect in ethics cases

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As local ethics investigators dig into government scandals in Miami, state lawmakers in Tallahassee are proposing changes that could reign them in by removing their ability to launch their own investigations into alleged public corruption and ethical violations.

The Florida Senate on Thursday passed a broad ethics package that would bar local ethics panels across the state from investigating misconduct by public officials unless someone with personal knowledge of wrongdoing is willing to identify themselves by name and file a complaint under oath. The change would block local government watchdogs from filing their own complaints.

The sponsor of the bill says the intent is to create uniform procedures for government watchdog agencies around Florida and prevent “politically motivated” or “frivolous” complaints. But in Miami-Dade County, where a self-initiated ethics investigation recently led to the indictment of ex-Miami Commissioner Alex Diaz de la Portilla, officials say the proposal would undermine their ability to investigate some of the most egregious instances of ethical – and sometimes criminal – violations.

“No more anonymous whistleblowers. No more employees referring information to us. We would be sitting on our hands unless someone comes forward and files a complaint under oath,” said Jose Arrojo, the executive director of the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust.

Florida law currently allows locals to adopt their own ethics enforcement procedures, which in some cases include anonymous hotlines. Miami-Dade ethics investigators can launch their own investigations, without needing to rely on a complaint – a dynamic that allowed the agency to find ethical violations by ex-North Bay Village Commissioner Andreana Jackson, who later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges, among other cases.

That means ethics investigators can start cases based off of news reports and anonymous tips, and issue subpoenas as they review whether an allegation warrants a formal investigation. If it does, they have the power to pursue a case.

Attorney David Winker, who has submitted complaints in the past and defended clients who have been the subject of ethics complaints, said the proposed changes “just doesn’t seem good for any of us,” and he can’t imagine anyone is “clamoring for less government oversight of elected officials.”

“It’s not like they’re going to fund local political corruption units in every county, right?” he said. “You’re just eliminating a tool that allows residents to hold their elected officials accountable.”

Targeting local control of ethics rules

It is not entirely clear why the push to strip those investigative powers from local entities is happening now, but it comes at a time when investigations and lawsuits have rocked Miami government and city officials are under scrutiny over gifts and business dealings.

Sen. Danny Burgess, the sponsor of Senate Bill 7014, said on Thursday that the purpose of the local preemption is to “add more protections from more malicious or meritless attempts that are politically motivated.”

He said he is trying to bring “uniformity” to the ethics complaint process in Florida.

“At the end of the day we want to balance the ability of fairness for both the victim of a circumstance alleging something has happened but also the one who is an alleged violator,” Burgess, a Republican, said when debating the proposal on the Senate floor on Thursday.

To ensure ethics complaints are based on “merit,” he said it was important to make sure that complaints across the state bear the name of the accuser and that the allegations are written, signed under oath and based “upon personal knowledge or information other than hearsay.”

If a complaint does not meet that criteria, the complaint would be dismissed even if the allegations were true. Local ethics commissions would also be barred from investigating those allegations on their own, without the backing of a legally sufficient complaint.

The push to change local ethics rules is part of a growing trend by Republican leaders in the Florida Legislature to shift control of local issues to the state.

Burgess, for example, said Thursday that the goal was to target local ethics boards that have more stringent standards than the Florida Commission on Ethics in order to avoid “forum shopping.”

The language targeting local ethics rules was crafted after Burgess said he talked to “several elected officials, the commission on Ethics, and others.” He did not reveal names.

“After speaking with many stakeholders, I felt comfortable moving in this direction,” he said in a text message to the Herald/Times on Friday.

Arrojo, the executive director of the Miami-Dade ethics commission, says he has not had the opportunity to talk to Burgess about the bill.

But, he said, “It would be a bad thing for us.”

A similar bill moving in the Florida House does not include the language Burgess has proposed that would strip local ethics panels’ ability to file complaints and investigations.