Thursday, February 13, 2020

Ex-WPB official fined as Gov. Ron DeSantis hands out ethics penalties (Palm Beach Post)

Ex-WPB official fined as Gov. Ron DeSantis hands out ethics penalties (Palm Beach Post)

Jeffrey Schweers, Tallahassee Democrat
Feb 12, 2020 at 1:00 PM

Gov. Ron DeSantis handed out a $4,500 to former West Palm Beach Communications Director Elliot Cohen for misusing his position to solicit business for his private company.

Gov. Ron DeSantis imposed fines and other penalties Tuesday against 14 public officials — including former West Palm Beach Communications Director Elliot Cohen — 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 - Florida 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.

>>Dozens of ethics cases are sitting on Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk

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.

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.

Former WPB communications director fined

Cohen the former West Palm Beach Communications Director, was fined $4,500 for misusing his position to solicit business for his private company.

The commission also found Cohen violated the law by using information from the city, which was not available to the public, to benefit his company.

>>State ethics board recommends $4,500 fine for former West Palm spokesman Elliot Cohen

Cohen left the city’s employ as communications director in August 2016. The Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics cleared him that year, but the state panel separately conducted an initial inquiry after receiving a complaint from the Palm Beach County Office of Inspector General.

Palm Beach County Inspector General John Carey had said that, in one instance, after the city received an inquiry from a Pahokee official about how to handle its communications, Cohen contacted the official and offered the services of his company.

In another instance, Cohen, who worked closely with Mayor Jeri Muoio and all city officials, was under contract with a company that was soliciting a major contract to run the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency. Though he sent the city a note saying he would recuse himself from that work until after the bidding, "either you’re under contract or you’re not," Carey said.

Cohen remained under contract with the company, Redevelopment Management Associates, without telling the mayor, city administrator or city ethics officer, Carey said. Also troubling, the Office of Inspector General found "a spike of communication" between Cohen and RMA’s chief executive during the bidding, while Cohen had access to confidential information that could have helped the company, Carey said.

The three alleged violations — misuse of his public office, soliciting business for his firm and having a contract with the bidder — could have led to penalties ranging from public censure, reprimand or a civil penalty of up to $10,000 per violation.

Cohen, a former TV reporter in Miami and West Palm Beach, was hired by former Mayor Lois Frankel in 2005, left a year later to work for Broward Sheriff Ken Jenne, then returned as Muoio’s communications director in 2012.

'Reviewing ways to improve the process'

The backlog of ethics cases 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, DeSantis 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.

Other orders executed by DeSantis on Tuesday include:

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

– A $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.

– A $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.

– A $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.

– A $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.

– A $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.

Contact Jeff Schweers at and follow him on Twitter @jeffschweers.

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