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Florida Commission on Ethics’

Clemens’ ethics rewind draws heat — in a hurry

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014 by John Kennedy

House and Senate Republican leaders hailed a new, tougher ethics standard for public officials as one of the top achievements of the 2013 session.

But legislation filed earlier this month by Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, is drawing heat for clashing with the freshly minted theme of reform.

Clemens’ proposal (SB 606) would lift most gift-reporting requirements for state and local elected officials and public employees; shield officials from ethics complaints if they acted after getting advice from a lawyer; and allow for penalties of as much as $5,000 against someone who files an ethics complaint “with malicious intent.”

Ethics advocates are warning Clemens’ proposal would lower watchdog standards and have a chilling effect on anyone looking to complain.

Clemens said the legislation was sought by the Florida League of Cities. But a lawyer who formerly was the executive director of the Florida Commission on Ethics said claims that the measure is harmless don’t make sense.

“I have to say at the outset, the claim by the League of Cities that ‘the provisions of SB 606 in no way weaken the laws that are on the books’ is simply absurd. It is preposterous to say that this bill would ensure ‘full transparency’ or provide ‘the right tools to enforcement agencies to root out corruption,’ as the League proclaims,” said Phil Claypoole in a memo to Integrity Florida, good government advocates who oppose Clemens’ bill.

Clemens, a former Lake Worth mayor, said he was willing to run bill “up the flagpole.” But given the backlash the legislation is drawing, Clemens said he may reconsider.

He has a meeting scheduled this week with the Ethics Commission’s current executive director, Virlindia Doss, and a representative of the League of Cities.

“It’s still early, and we have time to tighten up the language,” Clemens said. “It’s not my intent to move this bill forward if there are problems.”

Clemens also said he wasn’t looking to scrap ethics laws. But Clemens said that defenses should be enhanced for elected officials who get slapped with unfounded complaints that are politically motivated or aimed at harassing them.

“Politics is a high-stakes game in Florida,” Clemens said. “I was trying to file something that at least could stop these serial complainants from acting.”

Ethics Commission drops another complaint against Sachs

Wednesday, September 18th, 2013 by John Kennedy

A complaint against Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, for failing to include a $278,000 home she owns in The Villages on financial disclosure forms filed over a six-year period has been dismissed, the Florida Commission on Ethics said Wednesday.

The commission, meeting last week, ruled that Sachs has gone back and amended the forms filed between 2006 and 2011 and the “public interest would not be served by further proceedings.”

The complaint was filed by Kenya Nelson of Delray Beach, who could not be immediately reached for comment.

(more…)

Ethics complaint filed against Sachs over residency

Friday, June 28th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Sen. Maria Sachs has been hit with an ethics complaint accusing her of lying about where she lives.

Matthew Feiler, a Tamarac resident, filed the complaintcomplaint on Thursday, accusing Sachs, who was elected to the Broward-Palm Beach District 34 seat in November after a brutal election against Republican former Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, of falsifying public documents and violating state law requiring that lawmakers live in the districts they represent.

Sachs, whose district office is in Delray Beach, claims she lives in a Fort Lauderdale condo owned by lobbyist pal Judy Stern. But the complaint alleges she actually lives at a $1.5 million estate in Boca Raton owned by the former prosecutor and her husband Peter.

The complaint was filed after a WPLG Miami “Local 10″ investigation by Bob Norman. Private investigators videotaped Sachs arriving at her Boca home and leaving in the morning. The conservative website “Media Trackers” first questioned Sachs’s living arrangements in April.

The dispute about Sach’s living arrangements came up during hearings on Stern’s daughter Barbra’s appointment by Gov. Rick Scott to the state Elections Commission. Barbra Stern is part-owner of the condo Sachs claims is her home.

The Senate Ethics and Elections Committee signed off on Barbra Stern’s appointment, but only after Chairman Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, questioned Stern of Fort Lauderdale — about her ownership interest in the unit. Stern at the time said her mother paid the bills on the unit, that she hadn’t visited the condo for years and she had no idea who lived there.

The Sachs-Bogdanoff battle was one of the most expensive – and ugliest- state Senate races last year. Republicans had hoped to keep Bogdanoff in the Senate in the newly-drawn district, but Sachs’s victory helped Democrats gain two seats in the chamber.

Wednesday’s complaint is Sachs’ latest ethics challenge. The commission found probable cause earlier this month that Sachs failed to properly disclose a Tallahassee condo along with her state legislative income on three years’ worth of financial disclosures. The panel decided not to punish her because she amended the forms.

Watchdog group says Florida’s disclosure laws need more work

Monday, July 30th, 2012 by John Kennedy

A nonprofit watchdog organization Monday called for Florida to broaden its financial disclosure requirements for public officials, saying current law provides for loopholes that invite corruption.

Integrity Florida said state lawmakers and the Florida Commission on Ethics should model changes on the state of Louisiana, which drew a top ranking from the Center for Public Integrity in 2009 for disclosure standards enacted under Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal. Florida ranked 26th in the same report.

For starters, Integrity Florida executive director Dan Krassner said state ethics officials should post disclosure forms filed by public officials annually on the internet, so citizens can easily find them.

“If something’s not online, it essentially does not exist,” Krassner said.

Integrity Florida’s push comes on the heels of the ethics commission last week acknowledging that it is still awaiting disclosure forms from more than 4,000 public officials who failed to file by the July 1 deadline.

The commission also is digging in and refusing to dismiss as uncollectible $87,000 in fines that goes back more than four years and is considered beyond the panel’s authority to pursue.

Commissioners said they are hoping the Legislature will approve a measure next spring that extends the commission’s power. Florida’s disclosure laws were approved with a 1976 constitutional amendment. But the reporting requirements for public officials have not changed dramatically over the years even as the potential methods for gaining favors or hiding corrupt gains have become more sophisticated.

Integrity Florida, however, also is recommending that the Legislature enhance disclosure requirements to include more detail on public officials’ outside employment, nonprofit board membership, more information on a spouse’s net worth and more details about clients for those officials exmployed by professional or consulting groups.

“We still need more disclosure to know,” Krassner said. “Otherwise, Florida has increased its corruption risk.”

Krassner said more detailed information also should be demanded of legislators who work for lobbying firms. Integrity Florida found 11 lawmakers employed by organizations that lobby the Legislature, including Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, a lawyer with Gunster Yoakley & Stewart, and Rep. Joe Abruzzo, D-Wellington, employed by Weiss, Handler, Angelos & Cornwell.

Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, also lists Weiss, Handler as a secondary source of income on the disclosure form she filed earlier this month, although both she and Abruzzo also disclosed clients of the firm that have business before the Legislature.

Integrity Florida also said that lawmakers should tighten the standard for lawmakers required to disclose a possible conflict-of-interest when casting a vote. Legislators have as much as 15 days after each vote to file such disclosures with House or Senate officials. Such disclosures should be made before a vote, Integrity Florida said.

Only a dozen lawmakers disclosed 33 possible voting conflicts during the 2012 session, the organization found.

Tired of paper tiger label, ethics panel rattles cage

Friday, July 27th, 2012 by John Kennedy

The Florida Commission on Ethics said Friday it was stepping-up its efforts to pursue more than 4,000 public officials who have failed to file their annual financial disclosure reports.

Virlindia Doss, the commission’s executive director, told the panel that staff will be making phone calls to 4,284 officials who have not submitted their 2012 disclosure forms by the July 1 deadline. A grace period gives officials until Sept. 4 to turn in the reports, but after that, fines may be coming.

Doss said the commission also plans to send notices to these officials through certified mail, further nudging them toward compliance. The move could cost state and local taxpayers more than $20,000, but is designed to avoid a protracted fight with scofflaws over $25-per-day penalties which begin accumulating after Sept. 4.

“I am on a mission to reduce the number of people we fine to zero,” Doss told commissioners Friday.

The latest move is part of a strategy adopted by the ethics panel, tired of being derided as what one member said was a perception that it’s a ”paper tiger.”

The panel, though, is hampered by legal restrictions in collecting overdue fines. And as part of an effort of seeking more power from the Legislature to pursue scofflaws, commissioners last month refused to dismiss almost $100,000 in fines piled up by 30 state and local government officials who had failed for years to file financial disclosure forms.

Among those on the list of debtors: Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, who owes $1,500 dating to when he was a legislative aide in the early 2000s and apparently failed to file disclosures. South Bay Commissioner John Wilson also is accused of not filing disclosures and owes $300 since 2005, records show.

The panel’s decision to dig in on the fines was a turnabout from last summer. At that time, the four-year time-limit on the commission’s authority to collect led the panel to write-off about $1 million in fines against 800 officials.

As of Friday, about $86,000 in outdated fines is still pending before commissioners, Doss said.

Commissioner Matthew Carlucci was among those last month making the case for stopping the write-offs. He said that allowing the pile of IOUs to keep rising could help convince lawmakers that the ethics panel needs more muscle.

“The bigger it gets, the bigger hand we have when we go to the Legislature,” Carlucci said.

Lawmakers, who essentially are being asked to approve tougher laws on themselves, have historically ignored the panel’s proposals.

The Ethics Commission, though, is not alone in failing to collect what it’s owed.

The Post reported last fall that more than $800 million in fees, fines and court-ordered payments is owed the state by companies and individuals. Many have ignored their debts for years, with little risk of further punishment.

Scott gets okay to record airport welcome

Friday, June 15th, 2012 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott was given the go-ahead Friday to record visitor greetings on shuttles at Tampa International Airport by the Florida Commission on Ethics, which dismissed the idea that the messages amounted to a prohibited gift.

Scott’s office had requested the commission review. State law bars gifts from agencies like the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, which employs executive branch lobbyists. Scott’s office said the governor didn’t think the shuttle recordings would violate a “common-sense” definition of a gift, and the commission unanimously agreed.

There was some discussion, however.

Commissioner Edwin Scales said he didn’t want to set a tone where public officials would feel compelled to seek approval for small-scale appearances. He said he didn’t see “p.r. as a gift.”

Commissioner Morgan Bentley also said that when President Obama delivers the State of the Union address over television networks, he’s drawing free publicity. But that shouldn’t be considered a gift, he said.

“It’s bizarre that a public official could be considered getting a gift, just for doing his job,” Bentley said.

But the commission’s attorney, Chris Anderson, said such matters should continue to be subject to review on a case-by-case basis. There are times, he warned, that free airtime, invites or appearances can be considered a gift from a political benefactor — not just a freebie aimed at helping foster economic development or other broad goals.

Scott’s airport message on shuttle buses is to be recorded at the governor’s office, his staff said. The script: “This is Florida Gov. Rick Scott and I’d like to welcome you to Tampa Bay, a great place to live, work and play. Thank you for choosing Tampa International Airport. Enjoy your stay.”

Departing passengers will get a recorded “thank you” from Scott, who will urge them to “return soon.”

Since Scott’s office submitted the issue to the ethics panel, his office has been contacted by a marketing company that has said it could provide a holographic image of the governor that could greet airport visitors. The governor’s office has not yet responded to the pitch.

MacNamara out as Scott chief-of-staff, Hollingsworth in

Saturday, May 12th, 2012 by John Kennedy

Rick Scott’s chief-of-staff, Steve MacNamara, resigned Saturday after a brief meeting with the governor, concluding that ”media attention” focused on him had begun to “interfere with the day-t0-day operations of this office.”

MacNamara will leave July 1. Scott announced the veteran capital insider will be replaced by Adam Hollingsworth, who leads the right-of-way division for Flagler Development Group.

Hollingsworth is a former chief-of-staff to ex-Mayor John Peyton of Jacksonville. He left the mayor’s office to work for the Florida Republican Party in advance of Scott’s election, and also served on the incoming governor’s transition team.

“I’m grateful for Steve’s invaluable assistance in helping advance my agenda to strengthen education, create jobs and lower the cost of living for Floridians,” Scott said in a statement Saturday, while praising MacNamara for guiding a generally successful agenda for the governor through the Legislature this spring.

Scott added, “I believe Steve has had a tremendous impact on me and Ann as well as my administration and our state. I respect his efforts and ideas.”

MacNamara’s departure comes at least a few months ahead of his planned exit, but was hastened by media reports questioning his awarding no-bid contracts — one worth $5.5 million — to close associates while he worked for Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island. Former associates also accused him of being an overly controlling presence in the governor’s office.

Last week, a complaint against MacNamara also was filed with the state’s Commission on Ethics, accusing him of using governor’s office staff to assist him in inquiring about a college presidency opening in Montana. MacNamara and his wife own property in Montana, and influenced Scott and his wife, Ann, to buy near them. 

MacNamara left the Senate presidency job last June to join Scott, taking over as the new administration’s approval ratings tanked with Floridians, angered by deep budget cuts worsened by the governor’s difficulties connecting with the public.

MacNamara immediately attempted to soften the governor’s image — with Scott most days going without a necktie, suddenly visiting editorial boards he had shunned, and adopting a more cooperative approach with the Legislature.

Scott’s approval ratings remain lousy among Floridians, according to polls. But in his resignation letter, MacNamara pointed with pride toward his work helping Scott repair his first-year image.

“It is my belief that I have helped Floridians begin to know the real Rick Scott,” MacNamara wrote Saturday. “A man who listens to them, who tries to understand their issues and concerns, and works diligently to solve their problems.”

Before joining the governor’s office last June,  MacNamara directed wholesale housecleaning in the Senate administration, forcing out a number of longtime staff directors.  Some of the contracts MacNamara steered to associates and friends were part of his effort to improve the efficiency and transparency of Haridopolos’ office, qualities he also said he brought to Scott’s administration.

But MacNamara also drew controversy. Several Scott agency heads left over the past year, later citing MacNamara’s hands-on approach as interfering with their ability to lead, sometimes over seemingly petty matters.

 Doug Darling, chief of the Department of Economic Opportunity, a key agency for the job-promoting Scott, abruptly quit in January after MacNamara countermanded his order denying the state’s film commissioner a trip to the Sundance Film Festival.

MacNamara earned $189,000 as chief-of-staff.

He previously was chief-of-staff to former House Speaker John Thrasher, and served as an agency head under former Republican Gov. Bob Martinez. MacNamara is a tenured professor in communications at Florida State University, but helped shape Scott’s views of higher education as being rife with waste and overpaid administrators.

Although he didn’t comment directly on the accusations that have lately hounded him, MacNamara closed his two-page resignation letter by hinting that he was the target of those losing out on government contracts under the belt-tightening Scott. He also suggested that Scott would continue to defy these critics.

“As you continue to cut government waste,” MacNamara wrote, “those vendors of goods and services will work diligently to twist the story and bring about public pressure to stop these cost savings. Good luck with that!”

Just in time for new race, Rader cleared of complaint from 2010 campaign

Friday, March 30th, 2012 by John Kennedy

Just in time for another election cycle, former Rep. Kevin Rader had a complaint filed against him dismissed Friday by the state Commission on Ethics.

Rader, a Delray Beach Democrat, was accused in 2010 of failing to disclose his partial ownership of an underwriters’ group on his state financial disclosure forms. Rader, at the time a state Senate candidate, said he owned Advanced Insurance Underwriters through another firm, Rader Insurance Inc., which he did disclose on the forms.

State ethics investigators found probable cause that Rader should have revealed his connection to Advanced Insurance. The matter emerged when Victoria Thiel, a tea party activist, filed the complaint a month before the November 2010 election Rader lost to Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers.

But Rader fought the charge. His attorney, Mark Herron, filed a legal challenge with the state’s Division of Administrative Hearings, arguing that ethics investigators misapplied the state’s disclosure law. As part of Friday’s finding, that case also will be dropped.

“In the heat of a campaign, people sometimes will file complaints without merit,” Rader said. “I’m extremely happy this has been dismissed and the commission took no action.”

Rader last month announced that he would challenge Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, in this summer’s Democratic primary.

But with Senate district boundaries still not set, Rader also acknowledged he is considering running in a proposed district in the Lake Worth-West Palm Beach area that has a majority black and Hispanic voting age population. Rep. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, filed candidate papers this week to run in that district. Rep. Mack Bernard, D-West Palm Beach, also is weighing a campaign for the seat.

“It’s hard to say what’s going to happen, because know one knows what these districts are going to look like,” Rader said.

After the first redrawn Senate boundaries were rejected as unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court, the Legislature has completed its second attempt at map-making. The redrawn plan now must win approval from justices.

Hasner slapped for failing to disclose on time

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011 by John Kennedy

The state Commission on Ethics found probable cause that Republican Adam Hasner, a candidate for U.S. Senate, violated state ethics laws by failing to file his 2010 financial disclosure form in a timely fashion.

The ruling came Friday in the closed-door section of the Ethics Commision’s hearing. It was made public Wednesday by the panel.

Hasner, a former House majority leader from Delray Beach, joins fellow Senate contender Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, in running afoul of the commission. Haridopolos was admonished earlier this year by the Florida Senate he leads for failing to properly disclose all his assets over a five-year period.

Rick Wilson, a Hasner spokesman, acknowledged the lawmaker’s 2010 disclosure didn’t make it to the commission within 60 days of leaving office, as required by law. Wilson said Hasner’s finances didn’t change between 2009 and 2010, but that the campaign is now working with the panel in resolving the issue.

“We expected the commission’s finding, since Adam never disputed that he was a few weeks late on filing a form he didn’t know he needed to file and for which he did not receive a mailed notice,” Wilson said.

 


		

Ethics panel drops pursuit of almost $200K in fines

Friday, June 17th, 2011 by John Kennedy

The Florida Commission on  Ethics walked away Friday from almost $200,000 in fines owed by dozens of public officials — acknowledging the scofflaws had outlasted a four-year statutory limit on the penalties.

The decision is the first of several free passes likely to be issued by the commission in coming months. The penalties dropped Friday covered only officials who began accumulating fines 10 years ago for failing to file state-required financial disclosure reports.

But more than $300,000 is owed by almost 300 former public officials for fines building between 2001 and 2006. The commission is likely to drop their pursuit of those from later years, but Commission vice-chair Robert Sniffen said Friday’s move sends a bad message, especially to those who seek to comply with disclosure laws.

“What really kills me on this is that we have folks who come here from around the state, present their case and plead for clemency if they’ve made a mistake,” Sniffen said. “Those are the people I feel the worst for. The diligent, who take their medicine, pay their fines and move on.

“Then there’s those who flaunt the limitations of the commission. It’s shameful that you don’t respect the authority of this commission enough to pay the debt you are incurring,” he concluded.

The 168 officials absolved Friday by the commission typically served on municipal boards, pension committees and other public organizations that make up the low-minor leagues of state politics. Those from Palm Beach County included Allison Harty, a former Delray Beach city clerk whose $1,500 fine dates to 2001; Christopher Decker, who served on the Lantana Firefighters Board of Trustees in 2001, also owes $1,500, according to ethics panel records.

Decker and Harty couldn’t be reached this week. Indeed, the commission has dropped penalties after those on the list apparently for years avoided two collection agencies the state has used to pursue debtors.

The commission was told that sometimes, fines are paidby former officials seeking to clear the debt off a credit report. But commission staff conceded it wasn’t certain the unpaid penalties prove much of an obstacle for those who don’t pay. (more…)

Scott ethics complaints tossed out by panel

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011 by John Kennedy

Two ethics complaints against Gov. Rick Scott’s ownership of Solantic, Corp., the urgent care company he is planning to sell, have been dismissed, the Florida Commission on Ethics said Wednesday.

The commission found the complaints were legally insufficient to move forward. The decision was reached by the commission during its closed-door hearing Friday.

“I’m very comfortable that I’ve been transparent in all my business dealings,” Scott said Wednesday in Fort Lauderdale, during a break in the annual Governor’s Hurricane Conference. “And as you know…basically everything you do is public record, and I’ve filed lots of things.”

Scott, who reported a net worth of $218 million when he filed as a candidate for governor last year, has taken an evolving public stance on Solantic. (more…)

Haridopolos financial backer goes belly up

Tuesday, April 26th, 2011 by John Kennedy

One of Senate President Mike Haridopolos’ big  financial backers, Appliance Direct, has filed for bankrupty in an effort to reorganize its finances and stabilize its eight retail stores in Central Florida.

Haridopolos one-man consulting firm,  MJH Consulting, has counted as one of its two clients a company named Market Share Systems, a subsidiary of Appliance Direct. It paid him $181,000 since 2007 and provided him with a $5,000 monthly retainer, according to documents filed last year with the Florida Commission on Ethics.

The ethics panel found that Haridopolos  failed to fully disclose his financial interests for five years from 2004 through 2008. In an unusual move, the full Senate admonished its leader — a candidate for U.S. Senate —  earlier this session for the disclosure failures.
(more…)

Dems kick Haridopolos’ U.S. Sen bid right out of the gate

Monday, December 6th, 2010 by Dara Kam

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee didn’t waste any time slamming Senate President Mike Haridopolos, a GOP U.S. Senate hopeful who’s just taken over the helm of his chamber.

Before Haridopolos has even officially announced his intention to run against incumbent U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson in two years (if, as expected, Nelson seeks reelection), the DSCC lashed out at the Merritt Island Republican for violating the state’s ethics laws.

“Mike Haridopolos’ arrogance reached a new level when he kicked off a likely Senate bid by pleading guilty to breaking Florida ethics laws,” DSCC National Press Secretary Deirdre Murphy said in a statement today. “If Haridopolos’ miserable first week as a likely candidate is any harbinger for the future, he’s got a lot of explaining to do to Florida voters.”

Haridopolos, a college teacher whose courses include government, and the state Commission on Ethics reached an agreement about his failure to accurately fill out his financial disclosure forms for five years.

His punishment? Nothing, thus far.

Haridopolos’ own chamber and fellow senators will have to decide whether their leader must face a fine or other penalty for failing to identify the clients that paid him as a political consultant.

Sen. John Thrasher, who is also the head of the state GOP, is chairman of the Rules Committee that will make the final decision on whether to mete out any fiscal or other reprimand. Haridopolos appointed Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, to head the committee before he entered the stipulation agreement with the ethics commission.

Read the joint agreement here.

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