- 2016 budget
- African American museums
- Association to Preserve African American Society
- ethics complaint
- Florida Commission on Ethics
- Florida Department of Law Enforcement
- Geraldine Thompson
- History and Tradition
- Inspector General
- Jamie Grosshans
- Laurel Lee
- Renatha Francis
- Ron DeSantis
- Sankofa Project
- Supreme Court of Florida
- Well'sBuilt Museum
Democratic Rep. Geraldine Thompson accused Gov. Ron DeSantis and Secretary of State Laurel Lee Tuesday of pushing an ethics complaint against her as political revenge for when she stopped his Florida Supreme Court nominee last year.
Thompson, of Windermere, said Tuesday that she faces an ethics complaint regarding a state budget appropriation that she pushed in 2016. The complaint, she said, charges that she had a conflict of interest because some of the money went to an African American history museum she founded in Orlando.
In a news release that Thompson issued Monday, she contended that allegations about her 2016 actions have been reviewed or investigated several times with no findings of wrongdoing. She charged that the latest — an ethics complaint she says she first learned about in June — is nothing more than political payback to embarrass her.
Thompson also contended that the complaint is not even valid under Florida’s five-year statute of limitations for the Ethics Commission complaints.
She denied there was any conflict of interest involving her and the state appropriation.
“This is retaliation after the lawsuit I filed and won in 2020 when Gov. Ron DeSantis violated the Florida Constitution and acted to unlawfully appoint an unqualified individual to the Florida Supreme Court,” Thompson said in the release. “This is reprisal and DeSantis is using his appointees and government agencies in an attempt to discredit me and assassinate my character. I am waiting for the Florida Commission on Ethics to show any evidence they have to substantiate this malicious complaint.”
Under its rules, the Florida Commission on Ethics could neither confirm nor deny that such a complaint exists against Thompson Tuesday.
DeSantis’ office did not respond by late Tuesday afternoon to a Florida Politics inquiry about Thompson’s statement.
Lee responded late Tuesday, citing 2018 reports about the budget appropriation, but not referencing any recent ethics complaint. Lee indicated the 2018 report did not target any specific individuals but followed her office’s obligation “to be good stewards of Florida’s public funds.”
Thompson said the ethics complaint was filed by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in April.
She called the complaint political payback for when she sued DeSantis last year to stop the nomination of Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Renatha Francis to the Supreme Court of Florida. Thompson’s suit charged Francis was not constitutionally unqualified. The Supreme Court agreed with her. The court ordered DeSantis to pick someone else. He ultimately nominated Jamie Grosshans, then a 5th District Court of Appeal judge, to the high court last September.
The matter of the budget appropriation and how it became the topic of an ethics complaint is less straightforward.
In the early 1990s, Thompson founded the Wells’Built Museum of African American History and Culture in Orlando, and a nonprofit to support and run it, the Association to Preserve African American Society, History and Tradition.
Thompson said that in 2016 (the Department of State’s report references 2015) she pushed a $1 million budget item for the “Sankofa Project.” The item got included in the state budget, which Thompson voted for. The money was to be split by 10 African American museums around the state, including Wells’Built.
However, by then, Thompson was serving full time as a state Senator and was otherwise retired, according to her financial disclosures. She had not been on the nonprofit’s board of directors since 2012, according to its annual reports.
Thompson said then-Secretary of State Ken Detzner ordered an audit of the Sankofa Project and of the grant, and that much of the money was held up and never dispersed. Wells’Built did receive about $60,000. She said the audit cited some sloppy bookkeeping by some organizations, but no misappropriations and no wrongdoing.
The 2018 documents provided by Lee, who succeeded Detzner in 2019, said the department’s Inspector General found up to $410,000 worth of “unallowable and unsupported” expenditures in the Sankofa Project, statewide. The Inspector General’s office informed a representative (not Thompson) of the project’s official grantee organization (not the Wells’Built’s nonprofit) that it was in noncompliance. The grantee was instructed to provide more records or reimburse the state.
“At the Florida Department of State, we have an obligation to the people of Florida to be good stewards of Florida’s public funds and we take that responsibility seriously,” Lee said in a written statement Tuesday. “Any time we have concerns about the management of grant funds for which we are responsible for administering, we are obligated to think critically about the use of those funds and take necessary action to ensure the proper expenditure and/or return of those funds. In this specific case of the Sankofa Project, there were significant concerns regarding inaccurate reporting, procurement practices, lack of documentation, and agreement violations that were identified. Any suggestion that this process targets a specific grantee or persons is baseless and unfounded.”
Lee did not address the ethics complaint filed against Thompson. She also did not respond to Thompson’s narrative of what has happened in the past year, though much of that was spelled out in Thompson’s news release, which was forwarded to Lee’s office.
Thompson said that last year she spoke to administration officials, including Lee’s office, about getting the remaining Sankofa Project funding restored. After she filed her suit against DeSantis about the Supreme Court pick, she said, those discussions stopped.
Then, she charged, Lee asked the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida to investigate her regarding the matter. Thompson said the U.S. Attorney and the FBI both declined, and neither of them questioned her. She said Lee then asked the FDLE to investigate. The FDLE found no criminal activity, but referred a complaint about Thompson to the Commission on Ethics, Thompson said.
There also is a matter of Thompson’s daughter, Elizabeth Thompson, who became the nonprofit’s executive director in 2017 and a board member this year. The younger Thompson was not affiliated with the nonprofit or Wells’Built in 2015 or 2016, according to its annual reports.
“They went through all the mechanisms that they could think of. And when nobody would pursue it as a criminal matter, they said, ‘Well, we’ll try ethics. We have a different standard.’ And that’s where we are,” the Representative said. “It’s all about my lawsuit with the Governor and that attorney (he nominated) to the Florida Supreme Court. That’s the bottom line. It’s reprisal. It’s retaliation. And its out of the Trump playbook to use governmental agencies to attack your detractors.”