Ethics Commission Round-Up: Rick Scott Cleared, Nate McLaughlin Pending
FlaglerLive | May 18, 2011
Meeting in Tallahassee on May 13, the Florida Commission on Ethics took action on twenty complaints, Chairman Roy Rogers announced today, including a complaint alleging a conflict of interest in Gov. Rick Scott‘s investments.
The Commission found probable cause to believe that the ethics laws had been violated in two complaints, voted to dismiss six complaints with a finding of “no probable cause,” and voted to dismiss twelve complaints without an investigation.
The Commission found probable cause to believe that two elected local officials may have violated the Code of Ethics. A finding of probable cause is not a determination that a violation has occurred. Such a determination is made only after a full evidentiary hearing on the charges.
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The Commission adopted a formal opinion on Scott’s investments, finding that under the circumstances and facts presented, no prohibited conflict of interest exists where the Governor has invested in companies and investment funds that indirectly own Florida-based or Florida-regulated entities. The Commission also found that no prohibited conflict of interest would be created were the Governor to place his investment assets in a blind trust, with the trust placing most of its investment assets into discretionary accounts that will be managed by licensed and regulated investment advisors who will have the discretion to invest, divest, and reinvest assets, even if an adviser were to invest in a Florida company in which the Governor would be prohibited from directly owning an interest.
The ethics complaint filed against Flagler County Commissioner Nate McLaughlin, over incomplete financial disclosure documents in last year’s election, was not on the ethics commission’s action agenda. McLaughlin’s attorney, Jim Manfre, said McLaughlin has negotiated a settlement that would amount to a $600 fine, down from the $1,000 the commission was looking to impose. The commission has yet to ratify that settlement.
The Commission found probable cause to believe that EILEEN QUINN, Monroe County School Board member, had a prohibited business relationship because she was a board member of a local non-profit during the time the organization had a contract with the District. Although Quinn’s service on the non-profit board was not compensated, she was compensated by the organization for working as a liaison on a board project. Consequently, the Commission found probable cause to believe she had a conflicting employment relationship with the non-profit while it was doing business with the District.
Probable cause was also found to believe that KEVIN WHITE, former Hillsborough County Commissioner, misused his position to sexually harass a subordinate employee on multiple occasions, threatening her job because she spurned his advances, and ultimately firing her. The Commission also found that White had a voting conflict because he voted in January 2010 on a motion to file a lawsuit against him to recover legal expenses related to a sexual harassment lawsuit. Probable cause was also found to believe he had a voting conflict on a February 2010 vote to rescind the January 2010 vote.
No probable cause was found to believe that E. DOUGLAS BEACH, former Secretary of the Florida Department of Elder Affairs, misused his position to incur excessive travel costs for which he could receive reimbursement.
The Commission also found no probable cause on two allegations concerning DAVID ANDERSON, Martin County School Board member. No probable cause was found to believe that he misused District resources in his campaign or that he used his position to gain contact information for a private company in order to request a campaign contribution.
ED ARVEL, President of the Waterford Special Taxing District’s Board of Trustees, was cleared of allegations that he misused his position to unilaterally open a bank account in the name of the property owners’ association. The complaint was dismissed with a finding of no probable cause.
No probable cause was found to believe that WILLIAM A. CATHEY, Mayor of Mexico Beach, had a prohibited business relationship by selling hardware to the City while serving as Mayor. The Commission also found no probable cause to believe that Cathey had a conflicting contractual relationship because of his ownership of a hardware store that was doing business with the City while he served as Mayor, also finding that his employment did not created a frequently recurring conflict or impediment to his public duties.
The Commission also considered a complaint filed against FRANK DISTEFANO, Police Sergeant in West Palm Beach. No probable cause was found to believe that his off-duty employment relationship with a local business created a continuing and frequently recurring conflict of interest with his public duties.
West Palm Beach Police Officer SEAN MORROW was also cleared of allegations concerning his off-duty employment. The Commission found no probable cause to believe that he accepted unauthorized compensation in exchange for not citing a nightclub for a noise violation when serving as its off-duty security. The Commission also found no probable cause to believe that Morrow misused his position by failing to cite the nightclub for violating a noise ordinance. Additionally, no probable cause was found to believe that Morrow’s off-duty employment relationship created a continuing or frequently recurring conflict of interest between hi public duties and his private interests.
The Commission dismissed the following complaints for lack of legal sufficiency: MYRON ROSNER, Mayor of North Miami Beach; MICHAEL McAULIFFE, State Attorney of the 15th Judicial Circuit; two complaints against ART GRAHAM,
Commissioner serving on the Public Service Commission; MELODY HADLEY, Assistant Attorney General in the Office of the Attorney General; ROBERT TILLEY, Assistant Chief of the Okaloosa Island Fire Department and a member of the Pension Board; JAMIE BIEHL, Okaloosa Island Fire Chief; JOE EARLY, Assistant Chief of the Okaloosa Island Fire Department and a member of its Pension Board; two complaints against RICK SCOTT, Governor of Florida; CARMEN A. NICHOLAS, Director of Head Start & Children’s Services for Palm Beach County; and JOHN QUATRINI, Interim Director of Head Start & Children’s Services for Palm Beach County.
The Commission’s reviews for legal sufficiency are limited to questions of jurisdiction and determinations as to whether the charges in the complaint are adequate to allege a violation of the Code of Ethics. As no factual investigation precedes the reviews, the Commission’s conclusions do not reflect on the accuracy of the allegations made in these complaints.
The Commission adopted a settlement agreement finding that JOSEPH W. HENDERSON, Northwest Florida State College Board of Trustees, violated the voting conflicts law on four occasions: June 2004, January 2007, March 2007, and June 2007, when he voted on measures which he knew would inure to the special private gain of a business associate. However, the Commission dismissed three other allegations concerning voting conflicts involving a business associate with a finding of no probable cause on each. No probable cause was also found regarding an allegation that he had a conflicting employment relationship with a bank or architectural company that had a business relationship with NWFSC. The Commission dismissed charges that he misused his position to vote on matters or refrain from disclosure on matters that he knew would bring special private gain to a business associate, with a finding of no probable cause. A civil penalty of $4,000 will be recommended to the Governor for imposition by Executive Order.
Another opinion adopted by the Commission determined that no prohibited conflict of interest exists where a law firm of which a County Commissioner’s son-in-law is a non-equity shareholder represents clients before the County Commission in land use matters. Under the circumstances presented, the Commissioner is not required to abstain from voting or follow the disclosure requirements of the law when considering land use measures involving a property owner that is represented by the law firm.
Any public officer, candidate for public office, or public employee in Florida who is in doubt about the applicability of the standards of conduct or disclosure laws to himself or herself or to anyone whom he or she has the power to hire, terminate, or appoint, may seek an advisory opinion from the Commission about himself or herself or that employee. Opinions may be requested by letter presenting a question based on a real situation and including a detailed description of the situation. Opinions are issued by the Commission and are binding on the conduct of the person who is the subject of the opinion, unless material facts were omitted or misstated in the request for the opinion.
The Florida Commission on Ethics is an independent nine-member commission formed in 1974 to review complaints filed under the statutory Code of Ethics and to answer questions from public officials about potential conflicts of interest through its issuance of advisory opinions.
If Ethics Commission members believe a violation of the law may have occurred, they may decide to hold a public hearing. If they conclude a violation has been committed, they may recommend civil penalties that include removal from office or employment and fines up to $10,000 per violation.
–From the Florida Ethics Commission