Former state Sen. Steven Geller marked his election to the Broward County Commission in November by resigning from the Greenspoon Marder law firm and launching a solo legal and lobbying practice.
Geller had been warned that under the Florida Commission on Ethics’ interpretation of state law, his continued presence at Greenspoon could prevent any of the firm’s attorneys from appearing before the commission.
So he launched the Geller Law Firm and began reregistering for his lobbying clients to reflect his changed status. All but one of his clients have followed him to his new firm, he said.
“Most local governments interpret it differently,” Geller said in a telephone interview. “Most local governments believe that if you recuse yourself, you’ve resolved the conflict. The Ethics Commission feels differently.”
Florida Statutes 112.313(7)(a) says public officials can’t work for or maintain contractual relationships with any business or agency they regulate.
It also provides:
“Nor shall an officer or employee of an agency have or hold any employment or contractual relationship that will create a continuing or frequently recurring conflict between his or her private interests and the performance of his or her public duties or that would impede the full and faithful discharge of his or her public duties.”
The interpretation by the state’s ethics watchdog agency is to bar appearances by anyone affiliated with a professional firm before any public body, extending to anyone else affiliated with that firm.
“It’s concerned with what might happen — a temptation to dishonor,” agency spokeswoman Kerrie Stillman said. She pointed to some commission advisory opinions, including this one.
Recusal wouldn’t cure the conflict, she said — note that the statute seeks “the full and faithful discharge” of the official’s “public duties.”
In practice, Geller said, the provision is rarely enforced.
“I made the mistake of asking,” Geller said. “Never ask.”