As Gov. Ron DeSantis vows to clean up Washington if elected president, dozens of ethics orders seeking to punish the misdeeds of Florida politicians have been languishing on his desk in Tallahassee.
The Republican governor hasn’t signed an ethics order since Jan. 28, 2021, according to his official website. Until he takes action, politicians and public employees won’t have to fork over thousands of dollars in fines, even if they settled their ethics cases and admitted wrongdoing.
The list of ethics charges includes a former Orange County commissioner who failed to disclose she had a financial interest in a vote. Another case involves a Manatee County commissioner who made headlines for adding herself and four others to a VIP list for the COVID-19 vaccine when it was in short supply.
The backlog signals that Florida isn’t serious about enforcing ethics laws, said Ben Wilcox, research director at Integrity Florida, a government watchdog group.
“It is a bad message to public officials out there that they can maybe get away with violations of Florida’s ethics laws,” he said.
Forty-two pending orders recommending penalties await the governor’s action, according to an Aug. 24 report from Kerrie Stillman, executive director of the Florida Commission on Ethics.
Under Florida law, fines can’t be collected in those cases until DeSantis signs off on the commission’s recommended penalties, said Lynn Blais, a spokeswoman for the ethics commission.
“The commission has no power to impose its recommended penalties,” she said. “Only after it is imposed is the attorney general’s office able to collect.”
‘Start doing his job’
One of those recommended orders involves former Orange County Commissioner Betsy VanderLey, who voted to steer about $100,000 in county money to an engineering firm that was also paying her in an undisclosed conflict.
Environmental activist Chuck O’Neal filed an ethics complaint against VanderLey in the summer of 2020, and she agreed to pay a $1,000 fine in December 2021.
O’Neal was surprised to learn DeSantis hasn’t imposed penalties, more than three years after he filed the complaint.
“There doesn’t seem to be any accountability in Florida state government whatsoever,” O’Neal said. “You can have the governor dismiss elected officials doing their jobs, yet ones found in violation of ethics complaints have no repercussions.”
The governor’s slowness in signing ethics orders doesn’t square with his recent, high-profile suspension of Orange-Osceola State Attorney Monique Worrell, O’Neal said.
“He needs to quit running around Iowa going to picnics and start doing his job as governor here in the state,” O’Neal said.
DeSantis accused Worrell, a Democrat, of not aggressively prosecuting crime, saying she was “clearly and fundamentally derelict” in her duties. Worrell called the governor’s action politically motivated.
The reason for the ethics backlog is unclear. Jeremy Redfern, a DeSantis spokesman, did not respond to a request for comment. The issue has flown mostly under the radar in Florida politics, although it was noted in a 2020 USA Today Network report and then again in a WFLA television report in July.
On the campaign trail, DeSantis is vowing to take a tough stance on corruption in Washington, telling voters he wants to “break the swamp” if elected president.
“We need a new era of accountability with these agencies in D.C., and we will bring that on day one with me,” DeSantis said at one event.
The list of recommended orders involves both Republicans and Democrats and includes several high-profile cases.
Vanessa Baugh, a former Manatee County commissioner, came under scrutiny for creating a VIP list for a COVID-19 vaccine pop-up event in February 2021 when the shot was in high demand that included herself, a developer and three others. Baugh has been an ardent supporter of DeSantis, voting to name a park after the governor.
The commission found she violated the ethics code by using her office to deviate from the county’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution policy, and Baugh, who said she chose not to receive the vaccine at the pop-up event, agreed in November to pay an $8,000 fine.
Action is still pending on a recommended $20,000 fine for no-party spoiler candidate Alex Rodriguez over ethics charges stemming from a 2020 South Florida state Senate race.
Rodriguez pleaded guilty to criminal charges that he accepted $45,000 in bribes as part of an alleged “ghost” candidate scheme that prosecutors say was orchestrated to siphon votes away from former Democratic state Sen. José Javier Rodríguez.
The list also features former Apopka Mayor Joe Kilsheimer, who faced allegations that he vacationed at the taxpayer’s expense by improperly billing expenses during a national mayors’ conference in 2017. Kilsheimer agreed to reimburse the city $668 and pay $2,500 in penalties.
Some cases involve Democrats, including former Broward County Mayor Dale Holness and Dustin Daniels, the chief of staff when Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum was mayor of Tallahassee.
Holness agreed to pay $1,000 in an ethics charge that he repeatedly failed to accurately disclose his income as required by state law. The commission found Daniels violated the ethics code by using city equipment to send a campaign-related mass email, recommending a $1,000 fine.
Mark Herron, a Tallahassee lawyer representing seven people on the list, said his clients usually are “ready, willing and able” to pay the fines.
But “they are not beating down the door saying please get him to sign the final order,” Herron said.
Florida law limits the ability of the Ethics Commission to enforce the ethics code, which deals with abuse of office and other standards of conduct, said Wilcox, research director for the government watchdog group.
“People have called the Commission on Ethics a toothless tiger,” he said. “It’s not any fault of the Commission on Ethics for lack of aggressiveness. It’s the fact the Florida Legislature has not allowed that agency to be a really effective enforcer of ethics laws.”
The ethics commission cannot self-initiate an investigation and must receive a sworn complaint to open a probe. That is like only allowing the police to stop a speeding car if another driver calls and complains, Wilcox said.
If the commission deems a complaint legally sufficient, it is investigated, and the commission votes on whether to find probable cause that a violation occurred. If that happens, officials accused of wrongdoing can request a hearing before an administrative judge. They also can try to settle the case with the commission.
The commission can recommend penalties, including fines, reprimands and even removal from office. But it’s up to agency heads to enforce those penalties.
Recommended penalties against most public officers, employees, or candidates are forwarded to the governor.
Findings against state representatives and senators are referred to the House speaker and Senate president. Legislative leaders also have not been aggressive in levying penalties against legislators who commit ethical violations, Wilcox said.
As of late, the nine-member ethics commission has been shaken up by revelations that its chairman violated a state law barring public employees from serving. Glen Gilzean landed a $400,000-a-year job as administrator of DeSantis’ Disney oversight district in May and continued to serve as ethics chairman until resigning from the ethics board last month.
The new chair is Ashley Lukis, a lawyer whose husband served as DeSantis’ chief of staff.
One of DeSantis’ recent picks has sparked controversy. He appointed Tina Descovich, a co-founder of the conservative education group Moms for Liberty. Under state law, the ethics commission — appointed by the governor, House speaker and Senate president — must be bipartisan with no more than five members belonging to the same party.
Criticism that Florida’s ethics commission isn’t effective is unwarranted, said Caroline Klancke, director of the Florida Ethics Institute.
Earlier this year, lawmakers doubled the maximum fine from $10,000 to $20,000 for an ethics violation and increased government transparency by expanding financial disclosure requirements for local officials.
“Florida has some of the most extensive ethics laws applicable to public officers and employees in the entire country,” said Klancke, a former general counsel and deputy executive director for the ethics commission.
But O’Neal, who filed the ethics complaint against VanderLey, said he sees a need for improvements based on how his case was handled.
“If we are going to have an ethics commission, it should function in a timely manner, dispense a just penalty and have that penalty enforced somewhat concurrently with the ethics violation,” O’Neal said.