Bill Cotterell: Ethics panel is easy to use politically

Gov. Ron DeSantis is the latest major political figure bitten by an Ethics Commission filing.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signs books in Des Moines on March 10, 2023.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signs books in Des Moines on March 10, 2023. Photo by Rachel Mummey for The Washington Post via Getty Images

When the Legislature created the Florida Commission on Ethics, during a spasm of scandals that paralleled Watergate about 50 years ago, everybody said it would get abused by politicians seeking to smear each other.

Everybody was right.

Through no fault of its own, the nine-member commission is a handy cudgel for any candidate wanting to whack a foe, and to do some virtue-signaling on the cheap, by having a complaint filed in the heat of a campaign. Even if the complaint goes nowhere, the headlines — “Sen. Smith Hit With Ethics Charge” or “Ethics Panel to Probe Rep. Jones” — are fodder for attack ads.

The political probity police act honorably. The commission doesn’t announce complaints until probable cause is established. Its members stay above the mud-slinging.

The panel was born in a season of political reform during the mid-1970s when we had a lieutenant governor, U.S. Senator, three Cabinet officers, a couple of Supreme Court justices and a Public Service Commissioner losing their jobs under various ethical clouds. A couple of them even went to jail.

But, having run campaigns of their own, lawmakers were painfully aware that any financial-disclosure or conflict-of-interest watchdog they created could bite them, too.

Gov. Ron DeSantis is the latest major political figure bitten by an Ethics Commission filing. A group of Donald Trump supporters lodged a 15-page complaint accusing the governor of not only using his current position to run for president, but evading campaign laws to do it.

Let’s pause here and savor the irony of Trump supporters accusing somebody else of unethical conduct, as grand juries in New York and Atlanta are reported to be investigating whether the 45th president arranged a $130,000 payment to a porn star and tried to get Georgia authorities to “find” nearly 12,000 votes for him. Gilbert and Sullivan couldn’t come up with a sillier scenario.

“Governor DeSantis’s national political activities breach the public trust because they are designed (a) to enrich himself and certain organizations that support his presidential candidacy through an illegal gifting scheme while (b) skirting federal campaign finance laws and (c) influencing his decision to resign from office pursuant to Florida’s resign to run law,” says a draft of the complaint by Make America Great Again, Inc. “The Commission has an obligation to investigate whether Governor DeSantis’s national political activities constitute an impermissible conflict between his public duty and his private interests and/or a breach of public trust.”

Fresh off his boffo reelection victory, DeSantis is widely expected to announce his presidential candidacy after the Legislature leaves town in a couple months. And running for president is the one thing you can do that drives Trump into a fuming, fighting, nickname-bestowing fury.

So it’s reasonable to assume that if, for instance, Gov. Kay Ivey of Alabama or Georgia’s Gov. Brian Kemp or anyone not running for the White House did the same kind of fund-raising and travel to Iowa and New Hampshire, the MAGA Inc. folks wouldn’t be so righteously indignant.

Legislators would change the resign-to-run law in a minute if DeSantis told them to. Whether he’s using his current job as a stepping stone to something bigger is a judgment call. When we elect governors and Cabinet officers, we give them authority to decide where they need to go — at public expense or privately financed — and what they need to do.

More: Maybe Ron DeSantis doesn’t have to resign to run for president

One candidate’s slush fund is another’s political committee. It’s too bad the Commission on Ethics has to maintain an ethics of its own, not acknowledging the existence of a complaint even when the person filing it puts out a press release. Of course some officeholders will use their official powers to collect money from donors who want something from them. Of course they’ll use their government authority and prestige to generate publicity for their next campaigns.

Rather than just issuing a cold, administrative finding of no probable cause, the commission ought to occasionally rip up a complaint, spit on it, kick it across the street and tell the complainant, “Don’t bring us this kind of crap.” But that would be getting down in the gutter politics that the commission was created to clean up.

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

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