Thursday, February 13, 2020

Cutting backlog by half, Gov. Ron DeSantis imposes ethics penalties on Gillum, others; Shirk’s fate undecided. (T-U)

Cutting backlog by half, Gov. Ron DeSantis imposes ethics penalties on Gillum, others; Shirk’s fate undecided

By Jeff Schweers, USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida Capital Bureau
Posted Feb 12, 2020 at 11:02 AM
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday imposed penalties against 14 public officials for ethics code violations. The fate of former Jacksonville-area public defender Matt Shirk, however, remains undecided.

Gov. Ron DeSantis imposed fines and other penalties Tuesday against 14 public officials who transgressed Florida’s ethics code, cutting by half the number of final orders from the state ethics commission that had been languishing on his desk.

The flurry of executive orders comes five days after the USA TODAY Network reported that nearly 30 final orders from the Florida Commission on Ethics were awaiting his final decision, 21 issued during his first year in office. The other seven were left over from his predecessor Rick Scott, now a freshman U.S. senator.

DeSantis’ failure to act left $50,000 in uncollected civil fines in limbo and public officials not held accountable for their misdeeds months and sometimes years after they were found guilty.

Among those final orders executed was a $5,000 fine and public reprimand against his one-time political rival, former Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, the Democratic candidate for governor who lost to DeSantis by 33,000 votes in 2018.

The fate of former Jacksonville-area public defender Matt Shirk, however, is undecided.

Six months after DeSantis took office, the commission had approved a joint settlement agreement in June with Gillum for accepting gifts from former city lobbyist Adam Corey.

The backlog can be attributed to a policy discussion rather than an oversight, said Helen Aguirre Ferre, the governor’s spokeswoman.

DeSantis has had a busy year with two legislative sessions and two budgets, hurricane cleanup, Supreme Court positions to fill and lawsuits to deal with, but also has had “a healthy internal discussion over the proper role of the Governor’s Office as it relates to the enforcement of judgment by the Ethics Commission,” said Ferre.


The commission is an independent, bipartisan, quasi-judicial agency charged with investigating and weighing allegations of ethical misconduct. After deciding a violation occurred, the panel assigns whatever penalty is dictated by statute, and transmits it to the governor.

As the final arbiter, he can accept, reject or modify the order, but DeSantis also needs time to deliberate over each order to understand the commission’s intent, Ferre said.

“With that, the Governor’s Office has been reviewing ways to improve the process by which Commission on Ethics penalties are attended to,” Ferre said.

Any changes in that procedure would require a change to the Florida statutes, and no such changes are pending as the Legislature hits the halfway mark of this session.

After the Democrat story on the backlog published, Tallahassee businessman Erwin Jackson, who filed the complaint against Gillum, met with a “senior legislative and legal staff member” in the Governor’s Office Monday morning, while DeSantis was in Washington, D.C.

“He believes once a politician is found guilty the process is over,” Jackson said, describing his meeting. “The governor feels the ‘ethics judges’ are best equipped to make a final decision. He also believes that any political influence should be avoided... A quicker process with less political involvement!”


Chris Anderson, executive director and general counsel for the Florida Commission on Ethics, said there were no bills filed or pending to change the state’s ethics procedures.

Anderson received a call from Deputy General Counsel James Uthmeier of the Governor’s Office on Friday to discuss the statutory framework governing the process, Anderson said.

“When the commission issues its final order it goes to one of several places, the governor, the legislature or the Supreme Court,” said Anderson.

Most go to the governor’s office because the complaints most often deal with elected and appointed public officials under the executive branch, Anderson said. Cases involving the judiciary go to the Florida Supreme Court, while those involving legislators and members of the Public Service Commission go to the Senate President or Speaker of the House.

“They’ve been going there for years. That’s the way the law works,” Anderson said.

Other orders executed by DeSantis Tuesday include:

$6,000 fine against former Tallahassee City Manager Rick Fernandez for accepting college football tickets from Corey.

$4,500 fine against former West Palm Beach Communications Director Elliot Cohen for misusing his position to solicit business for his private company.

$2,000 fine against former Madeira Beach City Manager Shane Crawford for accepting gifts from registered lobbyist, including a more than 30 percent discount on a rental condo.

$2,000 fine and $2,320 restitution order against against Derryl O’Neal, the current fire chief and former interim city manager of Madeira Beach, for storing a Jet Ski on city property without paying rent and using city boat lifts.

$2,000 fine against Auburndale planning commissioner Jere Stambaugh for failing to disclose a conflict of interest and using his position to manage land sales that he personally benefited from.

$2,000 fine against Richard B. Romanoff Jr. of Coral Springs, former chairman of the University Place Community Development District for his business entering into an agreement with the district.

$2,000 fine against Thomas McQueen, a member of the East Lake Tarpon Special Fire Control District, for doing business with his agency.

The remaining cases are still under review by the Governor’s Office, Ferre said.

They include fines against a former Madeira Beach councilwoman who grabbed her city manager inappropriately, a Duval County public defender who installed a shower in his office and made advances on female coworkers, and the head of the Florida State Fair Authority for directing contracts to a family-owned business.

Also pending are final orders to remove from office a member of the St. Cloud Community Redevelopment Agency and a purchasing agent for the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department.

“The commission’s job is to find if there’s a violation of ethics law, and if there’s a penalty attached to the violation, they recommend the penalty and it goes to the governor for imposition,” Anderson said. “I can remember only one time in the last 30 years when the penalty wasn’t imposed by the governor.”

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