Changes in ethics rules could make filing complaints more difficult

(The Center Square) – Making it more difficult for Floridians to file ethics complaints against elected officials is getting backlash from a nonprofit group.

Citizens would only be able to file an ethics complaint with the state or local ethics boards if they had personal knowledge of the alleged violation, said Ben Wilcox. He’s research director of Integrity Florida.

They could not, for example, file a complaint based on an investigative report from the media.

Wilcox told The Center Square what began as House Bill 1597 was “OK” legislation. Then the Senate amended the companion bill and added new requirements for filing ethics complaints.

“Essentially what those amendments would do is completely eviscerate the ability to enforce our ethics laws in Florida,” said Wilcox. “It’s pretty obvious that the only people who have personal knowledge of an ethics violation are the people committing the violation.”

The amendments were approved on the floor of the Senate and not discussed in committee, said Wilcox. He says with limited citizen input, the power of Florida Commission on Ethics would be curtailed.

“The Florida Commission on Ethics can’t initiate an investigation into a possible ethics violation,” he said. “There has to be a sworn complaint by somebody before the commission can initiate an investigation. If you require that someone have personal knowledge of the ethics law violation, you are not going to get any complaints that the Ethics Commission can act on.”

The amended bill is expected to come up for consideration by a committee on Wednesday.

“If the House rejects the amendments, then it would go back to the Senate,” he said.

Wilcox believes it would be better to have no bill at all than to pass the amended version.

“If the Legislature passes this bill, I will be asking for the governor to veto it,” he said.

State Sen. Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhill, sponsored the amendments. Efforts were unsuccessful by The Center Square to obtain comments from him.