Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gives his State of the State address during a joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives in Tallahassee, Fla., Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Gary McCullough)
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Florida government ethics advocates are urging Gov. Ron DeSantis to veto a bill they say is “anti-democratic” and will only discourage the work of watchdog groups keeping tabs on local government officials.

Under S.B. 7014, ethics boards won’t be able to initiate their own investigations. Members of the public would have to file complaints to start any inquiry, and can only do so if they’ve personally witnessed an ethics violation.

The bill’s supporters say it’s meant to keep ethics boards from being used for politics.

“Somebody could call a tipline, hotline, pick up the phone and say ‘this person is doing x, y and z,’ hang up the phone, then immediately maybe call the media and tip that off that a complaint was made then the whole thing spirals out of control,” state Sen. Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills, said.

Florida Senate President Kathleen Passidomo defended the legislation, saying its goal was to make sure ethics commissions overseeing public officials have uniform, consistent standards.

“I believe that state and local ethics boards should be able to spend their time investigating serious violations of our ethics laws, not politically motivated public relations stunts designed to generate headlines. All too often the current process is weaponized by bad actors,” she said in a statement.

Opponents say it puts up unnecessary barriers for anyone to file a complaint.

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Last month, Common Cause Florida and eight other democracy partner groups sent a letter to DeSantis, demanding he veto it. They said “the anti-democratic ethics bill” will “make it almost impossible for Floridians’ to file complaints against government officials who violate the public trust.”

“This isn’t about minimizing frivolous complaints; this is about making complaints almost impossible,” said Amy Keith, executive director of Common Cause Florida. “The people of Florida deserve accountability and transparency and the right to demand it of officials.”

“This bill has huge implications for public trust,” she added. “It will allow corruption to go unchallenged if it comes into law.”

Ethics commission leader in Palm Beach, Miami-Dade oppose bill

Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics Michael Kugler has said the amendment “handcuffs our commission and prevents the commission from doing things that would foster integrity and trust in public service.”

“It would diminish our commission’s overall mission and ultimately harm the citizens of Palm Beach County. State laws are generally supposed to have a beneficial effect,” he said in a statement last month. “This bill will thwart our ability to represent our community’s interests and to prevent ethical misconduct.”

Jose Arrojo, executive director of the Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics and Public Trust, which oversees ethics complaints in the county and its 34 municipalities, told WFSU it only receives about 50 sworn complaints a year but receive hundreds of anonymous complaints through their tipline and other ways to protect whistleblowers.

He said the bill, if signed into law, would completely change the scope of how his department can serve the public.

“The citizens of Miami Dade County have lost a repository for complaints of ethical misconduct, you know, the one agency that could take these referrals and act upon them and send them out to different agencies. That ability to do that no longer exists for the citizens of Miami Dade County, at least not with their ethics commission,” he said. 

Matt Carlucci, a city councilmember from Jacksonville, says the legislation, if signed into law by DeSantis, would create difficult accountability hurdles. 

“People that commit ethics violations don’t exactly invite the public to watch their bad behavior,” he said. “So it’s gonna be hard for citizens to lodge a complaint that they’ve seen personally. If you don’t want to be investigated then you keep your nose out of trouble. “

Carlucci is among a group of 20 ethics advocates from around the state, including from Miami, Naples and Jacksonville, to also pen a letter asking Desantis to veto the bill. Their letter was put forth by the nonprofit Florida Ethics Institute, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for ethics and accountability in local and state government.

Carlucci, a former chair of the statewide Florida Commission on Ethics, said the bill presents an easy win for DeSantis.

“I think the Governor has a real opportunity by vetoing this bill to enhance his appeal to voters statewide as well as restoring some faith in the public,” he said.

DeSantis has 15 days from the time the bill reaches his desk to sign or veto it. If he takes no action, the bill will become law without his signature.

Joshua Ceballos

Joshua Ceballos is WLRN's Local Government Accountability Reporter and a member of the investigative team. His work appears under a partnership between WLRN and the Key Biscayne Independent.

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Joshua Ceballos is WLRN's Local Government Accountability Reporter and a member of the investigative team. His work appears under a partnership between WLRN and the Key Biscayne Independent.