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Get the latest coverage of the 2024 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

An open letter – and dire warning – from the Florida Ethics Institute

Gov. Ron DeSantis giving the State of the State address to the Florida legislature.
Tom Urban/File
Gov. Ron DeSantis giving the State of the State address to the Florida legislature.

The executive director of the Florida Ethics Institute and former deputy executive director of the Florida Commission on Ethics, speaks about ethics in government and an unprecedented threat via the Florida Senate’s recent passage of Senate Bill (SB) 7014.

As the executive director of the Florida Ethics Institute and former deputy executive director of the Florida Commission on Ethics, I’ve dedicated my life and career to the cause of ethics in government and have been heartened to see that cause championed by the people of the state.

One particularly stirring example came in 2018, when an overwhelming 79 percent of Floridians approved an amendment to the state constitution that strengthened ethics provisions and afforded the ethics commission additional authority to prevent public officials from abusing their positions.

Caroline Klancke
Executive director, Florida Ethics Institute
/
File
Caroline Klancke

But these laws, which apply to all public servants regardless of political affiliation, are meaningless absent the ability of the ethics commission to investigate complaints often involving conflicts of interest and misuse of public office. It is through the diligent, thorough, and impartial scrutiny of our ethics commissions, both state and local, that governmental corruption is exposed and meaningful beneficial change is achieved.

However, the investigative process of both state and local ethics commissions is facing a new and unprecedented threat via the Florida Senate’s recent passage of Senate Bill (SB) 7014.

The Senate passed four amendments to this bill absent public hearings or the committee process — all four of which were designed to weaken Florida’s ethics laws. Each of these four amendments represent an assault on the legal mechanisms of transparency, fairness, and government, and therefore must be opposed.

SB 7014, as amended, seeks to introduce burdensome requirements on citizens seeking to file ethics complaints with state and local ethics commissions that require they have “personal knowledge” of the alleged ethics violation and prohibit local commissions from conducting self-initiated ethics investigations.

These requirements, if implemented into law, would prevent the investigation of ethics complaints predicated upon news articles and reports exposing public corruption. This is a profound change in favor of shielding ethics violators from investigatory scrutiny.

Additional provisions of the bill seek to adopt new exemptions to the financial disclosure laws that would shield from public scrutiny the major customers and clients of businesses owned by certain public officials—information which is critical to determining voting conflicts and other conflicts of interests.

In addition, the bill attempts to tie the hands of the Florida Commission on Ethics to act as a collegial body. If enacted, SB 7014 will set back ethics laws ensuring governmental transparency and accountability. And one must ask why legislators would want to undermine the state Code of Ethics when Floridians have clearly and overwhelmingly indicated their desire for stronger, not weaker, protections against governmental abuse.

As a proponent of legal protections ensuring ethics in government, I am dismayed by the recent passage of SB 7014. However, I remain hopeful House members will recognize the potential for disastrous repercussions of the bill and will keep the corrosive amendment language out of the House companion, HB 1597, which is now in the House State Affairs Committee.

Florida has long led the country in its legal protections of fairness and transparency. But this is not the time to take these safeguards for granted. It is once again necessary for Floridians to band together to reiterate our collective commitment to fairness in government as evidenced in our State Code of Ethics.

Do not let the tools of accountability slip so easily from society’s grasp.

About the Author: Caroline Klancke is an ethics attorney who serves as the Executive Director of the Florida Ethics Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization founded to advance ethics through education. She formerly held the positions of General Counsel and Deputy Executive Director for the Florida Commission on Ethics. Klancke can be reached at info@floridaethics.org

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Caroline Klancke/ Florida Ethics Institute