Sunday, April 12, 2020

A Florida ethics minefield: No free TV exposure for DeSantis during pandemic | Steve Bousquet. (South Florida Sun Sentinell)

Do you share Steve Bousquet's odd view that Florida ethics laws are too strict? I objected to Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry's 2018 hurricane PSAs on local radio station WJCT-FM, NPR affiliate. The ads did not come back in 2019. We don't need PSAs with DeSantis. It's a gift to him, not us. Enough flummery, dupery and nincompoopery from reporter-distorters who parrot Tallahassee hick hacks' propaganda. We've got talented musicians in Florida, whose motives would not be questioned. How about Jimmy Buffett, rather than RONALD DION DeSANTIS?

From South Florida Sun Sentinel:

A Florida ethics minefield: No free TV exposure for DeSantis during pandemic | Steve Bousquet

Steve Bousquet
APR 10, 2020 | 2:57 PM

Gift ban madness: A state ethics panel says the governor can't appear in public service ads during the coronavirus crisis.

Gift ban madness: A state ethics panel says the governor can't appear in public service ads during the coronavirus crisis.(The Florida Channel)

Everyone worries about exposure to the coronavirus. But another kind of exposure — on TV — became a big deal to Florida’s ethics watchdogs on Friday.
They reached a controversial decision that it’s a violation of state ethics laws for Gov. Ron DeSantis to appear in public service TV spots to guide Floridians during the pandemic. This would not be an issue in most states, but it’s a controversy here because the definition of a gift to Florida officials includes anything of value, including a 30-second ad during a state of emergency. If this doesn’t force lawmakers to revise an illogical gift ban, nothing will.

For the past few weeks, DeSantis has been a constant TV presence and at times a controversial one, such as his widely-debunked claim that nobody under age 25 has died from COVID-19.
But a cable TV company decided DeSantis is still the best messenger to communicate with Floridians. Charter Communications, which owns two local news channels, News 13 in Orlando and Bay News 9 in Tampa Bay, wanted to provide free time to the governor and other state officials in PSAs or public service announcements.

There’s a big catch. The governor is subject to ethics laws, and those announcements have monetary value. Also, the cable company employs lobbyists (most of Charter’s 11 lobbyists work for Bill Rubin’s Fort Lauderdale firm, Rubin Turnbull & Associates).
The cable company hired lawyer Ron Meyer to seek approval from the Commission on Ethics, which held an emergency meeting by phone under the statewide shelter-at-home order.

Meyer said the TV spots are the company’s idea, not the governor’s. He said 41 states allow elected officials to be featured on-air and that DeSantis’ TV appearances would end when the state of emergency ends.
“What we’re trying to do is communicate, timely and effectively to all segments of the population, critical health and pandemic information,” Meyer said during Friday’s two-and-a-half hour session. “We’re still on the uphill climb in this pandemic.”
If a “gift” is involved, Meyer argued, it’s a gift to the public, not to the governor.
But the ethics commission’s executive director, Chris Anderson, viewed it differently. He said the TV firm’s offer could be seen as a “currying of favor” and urged passage of a staff legal opinion that said: “Laws against undue influence are more necessary in the worst of times as they promote the objective decision making of public officials, which also is most necessary in the worst of times.".
On a 6-3 vote, the panel agreed and pulled the plug on the cable company.
The majority vote was led by Willie Meggs, a former Tallahassee prosecutor, who filed misdemeanor charges against two dozen lawmakers in the early 1990s for flagrantly violating the gift laws that back then required gifts to be disclosed. The lawmakers failed to report trips to France and Mexico, golf outings and other lavish freebies from lobbyists.
“You almost have to be under a rock to not know that we have a problem with the coronavirus," Meggs said. "I don’t see the need to change anything.”
Friday’s decision rested partly on a vote by the Legislature more than a decade ago when it enacted a sweeping gift ban. That 2006 law expanded the legal definition of expenditure by lobbyists or their clients to elected officials to include anything of value — anything that is except a campaign contribution, which is why the gift ban has been rightly ridiculed as an act of sheer hypocrisy.
The decision also hinged on a 2005 ethics commission case that denied a proposal by what was then BellSouth (now part of AT&T), to feature legislators in advertisements that promoted its Lifeline and Link-Up products targeted to low-income customers. The utility is heavily regulated by the Legislature.
One of those who voted no Friday, former Republican Sen. John Grant of Tampa, was on the ethics commission in 2005 and said that was the right decision, but Friday’s was wrong. He called it “illogical" and said: “This goes far too far.”
Another dissenter, Tony Carvajal, said a logical extension of Friday’s vote would prevent state officials from speaking to trade groups if they employ lobbyists. “Where does this stop?" he asked. “We’re assuming the worst in people, which I understand is where we normally would start."
The third “no” vote came from Joanne Leznoff, a retired senior staff member in the governor’s office and Legislature, who called it “arbitrary and damaging to the state of Florida.”
“We’re dealing with an unprecedented crisis,” Leznoff said. “I’m not being dramatic, but this is life-and-death stuff.”
Steve Bousquet is a Sun Sentinel columnist. Contact him at or (850) 567-2240.

Steve Bousquet is a columnist for the Sun Sentinel who previously covered state government and politics for three decades at the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald. He was the Times' Tallahassee bureau chief from 2005 to 2018 and has also covered city and county politics in Broward County. He has a master's degree in U.S. history from Florida State.

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