Senate Takes a Bite Out of Ethics Complaints

Senate Takes a Bite Out of Ethics Complaints

By Bill Cotterell, The News Service of Florida

The Florida Senate wants to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Florida Commission on Ethics by shortening the leash on that somewhat toothless watchdog and — if anybody still has any idealistic expectations — further weakening public confidence in the integrity of our state’s elected officials.

With nary a dissenting vote, the Senate recently sent to the House a package of commission-related changes intended to tighten up some filing deadlines and clarify a few requirements for bringing complaints against public officers. But before their 39-0 vote, senators adopted a little amendment that says anyone complaining about conflicts of interest or other unethical actions must attest that their information “is based upon personal knowledge or information other than hearsay.”

Viewed in its best light, that means you shouldn’t make your local mayor, county commissioner or state legislator waste time and money fending off spurious allegations, just because he or she did something you consider a little fishy.

But if your city council member or county attorney deliberately deletes big items on their annual financial-disclosure reports, or members of the local planning board violate open-meeting laws and rig agenda items, they’re probably not going to talk loudly about it at McDonalds or send each other emails that can be tracked down. More likely, opponents of a pending action will tip off a newspaper or broadcast reporter and a good story will result, so an irate citizen will ask the ethics commission to take a look.

That’s not going to happen if “personal knowledge or information other than hearsay” is the threshold for every ethics complaint. A news article, no matter how fair and important, is essentially hearsay. If a citizen’s complaint is simply misinformed, or politically motivated, the ethics commission staff should toss the thing after a quick once-over, with a public announcement that there was nothing there.

The panel already hears things in executive session, followed by public notices of probable cause, or no cause, on various allegations. And the commission itself is highly ethical about neither confirming nor denying the existence of a complaint until probable cause is found and an investigation starts.

Still, a political opponent can get somebody to file a complaint and call a news conference announcing it, resulting in headlines like “Smith’s use of state planes under investigation” or “Ethics panel looks at Brown’s finances.” Such news clippings will pop up in campaign ads that somehow never mention if a case was dismissed out of hand. 

The solution, though, to mistaken complaints or lunatic accusations is not to require a sworn certification of personal knowledge. If an eyewitness account had been the standard in Washington, the only whistleblower for the Watergate scandal would have been Frank Wills, the security guard who noticed that someone had taped over the latch on the door of a stairwell used by Nixon’s burglars.

Our Commission on Ethics was sort of a Watergate spinoff, created in 1974 “to serve as guardian of the standards of conduct” for city, county and state government officeholders. That was the year Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, and Florida had its own spate of scandals.

In separate cases, two Cabinet members went to jail, another lost re-election after taking the Fifth before a grand jury, a U.S. senator left office under investigation, the lieutenant governor was fired from Gov. Reubin Askew’s re-election ticket, and a couple of Supreme Court justices left town one step ahead of the Judicial Qualifications Commission.

It got so bad, politicians in Chicago and New Jersey were saying, “C’mon, Florida, what are you guys doing down there….?”

Legislators like to say you can’t legislate morality, and no two politicians can ever agree on a definition of “ethics.” So they managed to create the ethics commission and implement Askew’s 1976 “Sunshine Amendment” for financial disclosure, but they couldn’t codify the concept that, when you’re not sure if something is ethical, it probably isn’t.

Policing politics will always be an imperfect pursuit and legislators shouldn’t be harassed by every gadfly who just wants to throw stones or partisan opponents who want to upstage them politically. But there’s no need to make it any harder for citizens to ask the ethics commission to check it out when they suspect public officials are abusing their powers and privileges.

Bill Cotterell is a retired capitol reporter for United Press International and the Tallahassee Democrat. He can be reached at

2 Responses to "Senate Takes a Bite Out of Ethics Complaints"

  1. Then why have an ‘Commission on Ethics’ at all? I think you should give them MORE Leash AND some more TEETH. The City Commissioners, County Commissioners and the Legislators should NOT have a Vote in how to run the Ethics Commission.

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