Joe Gruters wants to stop ethics complaints from being used as political cudgels.
Now the Republican state senator from Sarasota is proposing a solution that could add a layer of secrecy to the process.
His bill (SB 228) would prohibit the Florida Ethics Commission from making public ethics complaints made against a candidate within 60 days of an election. It could also double the period before an election when elections complaints could be made public.
“Far too often, we see these complaints being weaponized for the sole purpose of campaigning,” he said.
While Gruters says it’s important to hold elected officials and candidates liable for violations of ethics and the law, he says meritless complaints flood the system in attempts to paint candidates in a poor light. Often, those complaints get dismissed quickly after an election.
“Every cycle we see things happen,” Gruters said. “Both sides use it. It’s unfair maneuvering that politically benefits those who know how to use the system to their advantage.”
But for public records advocates, his solution seems a step in the wrong direction.
“We need more transparency, not less,” said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation. The foundation just started reviewing the legislation and has not taken any position, Peterson stressed.
But she notes that, already, neither the commissions nor defendants in complaints can discuss probable cause findings in the 30 days before elections. Doubling that time could make a messy situation worse, Petersen fears.
“I’m very sympathetic to what Sen. Gruters is trying to do, but I’m not sure this is the way to do it,” she said.
There seems little dispute, however, that the system gets abused today.
Morgan Bentley, a former chairman of the Florida Ethics Commission who served on the board 2010-14, confirmed the panel deals with a barrage of complaints in the immediate lead-up to elections.
“It’s pretty common that a week or two weeks before an election, someone (will) file something,” he said.
He believes part of the problem comes from an “asymmetrical confidentiality” in the law that allows those filing complaints to make the actions public while those being accused cannot address pending matters.
“Basically, if I complain, I can tell the paper about it. But if I’m the target, I can’t,” he said.
Bentley considers the Gruters bill a good step toward reform.
But he said a better solution would be to apply the same confidentiality rules to all parties or have no confidentiality about complaints at all.
Petersen, though, said those filing the complaints hold a constitutional right to make public their concerns, and she doesn’t see any way for state law to stop that from taking place.
“To tell the complainant they can’t talk about this is prior restraint,” she said. “It’s unconstitutional. You can’t yell ‘Shut up!’ ”
Bentley said he thinks elections complaints should not be governed the same as ethics concerns, where the legitimate worries tend to be relevant long-term and involve activities taking place independent of elections.
Nepotistic hires, for example, aren’t more likely to take place during election season, he said, while violations of election laws tend to happen at a higher rate within the period shortly before elections.
Gruters, though, said he hates seeing frivolous complaints filed immediately before elections only to get tossed aside afterward.
He noted a Sarasota County School Board race where a complaint against a candidate was filed a week before the August election, actions covered by the Herald-Tribune.
Petersen, though, fears abuse of the system would just get put on a different timeline.
Right now, she said a candidate running or office could file a complaint against his or her opponent 29 days before an election, and even if the matter gets dismissed immediately, the abused party can’t say they have been cleared. This legislation would double the time that could happen.
Perhaps more importantly, if the ethics or elections commissions find complaints to be valid, nobody can discuss that fact before voters weigh in on whether the individual should hold public office.
Bentley said the real problem right now is that complaints can be publicized before any commission even determines probably cause the complaint deserves attention, much less determine whether violations indeed have taken place.