© 2024 All Rights reserved WUSF
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
You Count on Us, We Count on You: Donate to WUSF to support free, accessible journalism for yourself and the community.
Get the latest coverage of the 2023 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

DeSantis signs a controversial bill changing ethics boards

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses attendees during the Turning Point USA Student Action Summit on July 22, 2022, in Tampa.
Phelan M. Ebenhack
/
AP
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses attendees during the Turning Point USA Student Action Summit on July 22, 2022, in Tampa.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed legislation that will drastically change state and local ethics boards in Florida.

The law, which made its way through the legislature as SB 7041, adds time limits to the length of ethics investigations, requires sworn affidavits to launch complaints, and bans second-hand knowledge from being used in investigations. It also allows those running for public office to seek civil damages when someone files a fraudulent complaint.

Many of those bill elements were added by Zephyrhills Republican Senator Danny Burgess. He argued on the senate Floor that the changes were to keep ethics commissions from being used for political purposes.

“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,” he said.

But ethics officials from around the state aren’t buying it.

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

In a previous interview with WFSU, Arrojo said the law will 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.

Amid the complaints from ethics professionals, the bill was defended by legislative leadership. A few weeks ago, Senate President Kathleen Passidomo issued a written statement defending the legislation, saying critics of the bill are mischaracterizing it.

“Plenty of local ethics boards already require sworn complaints based on the standard in the bill. And I have concerns that in other jurisdictions the self-initiation powers are or could be politicized and weaponized,” she wrote.

Ben Wilcox, Research Director for Integrity Florida, said those concerns about current ethics boards are unfounded. He believes the measure is an attempt to prevent local boards from doing their jobs.

“We already have a situation where for the commission, Florida commission on ethics, to even begin an investigation into, you know, possible unethical behavior, someone has to file a sworn complaint with the Florida commission on ethics before they can even begin an. Investigation. So, this makes so that much harder for a person to file a complaint and have that complaint investigated,” he said.

Now that DeSantis has signed the bill, it has become the new law governing ethics boards in Florida.

Tristan Wood is a senior producer and host with WFSU Public Media. A South Florida native and University of Florida graduate, he focuses on state government in the Sunshine State and local panhandle political happenings.