Florida elected officials can still lobby for clients while in office after a Miami federal judge knocked down part of the state’s ban on lobbying by lawmakers.
Judge Beth Bloom issued a preliminary injunction against the part of the lobby ban that applies to lawmakers, statewide elected officials, City Councilmembers, County Commissioners and other members of elected boards with taxing authority while they are in office. The ban infringes on elected officials’ First Amendment rights, she ruled.
The lawsuit was brought by Miami-Dade County Commissioner Rene Garcia, Palm Beach County Commissioner Mack Bernard, Leon County Commissioner Bill Proctor and South Miami Mayor Javier Fernandez. Garcia argued the ban would hurt his business consulting firm, New Century Partnership, which offers lobbying services, including of the federal government. Garcia is a Republican, but the other challengers are Democrats.
Bloom ruled Tuesday that because the ban applies only to lobbying regarding “policy, procurement and appropriations,” it is not a content-neutral restriction on First Amendment rights to free speech, even if the state has a compelling interest in preventing corruption.
“Defendants have shown no nexus between quid pro quo corruption and Garcia’s lobbying of the federal government,” wrote Bloom, who was appointed to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida by President Barack Obama in 2014. “Accordingly, the In-Office restrictions appear to ‘reach more broadly than is necessary to protect legitimate (governmental) interest.’”
But Bloom found Garcia and the other plaintiffs still in office don’t have plans to leave office soon and couldn’t specifically claim the amendment’s ban on lobbying after they leave office would harm them. Therefore, she ruled they didn’t have standing in that area. That means the order doesn’t apply to the state’s post-office lobby ban, which remains intact.
Garcia said he’s pleased with the ruling.
“Why would we prevent someone from hiring me just because I’m in office to advocate on their behalf?” Garcia said.
Florida voters passed an amendment in 2018 — with 79% of the vote, the most popular proposition on the ballot that year — that extended the state’s ban on lobbying by elected officials after they leave office from two years to six years. It applies to statewide elected officials and local government officials as well, including while they are in office, but it didn’t take effect until Dec. 31.
The measure was placed on the ballot by the Constitutional Revision Commission at the urging of former Senate President Don Gaetz, a member of the Commission, who wanted to clamp down on legislators cashing in on their service with lobbying gigs. Gaetz later became a member of the Florida Commission on Ethics and is named as a defendant in the lawsuit.
Crystal Wagar, a former Miami Shores Council member, was initially a party to the suit. But she resigned her position just before the lobby ban took effect Dec. 31 after previously taking a job with The Southern Group. As Mayor of Miami Shores, Wagar had “led the charge” for the town to hire The Southern Group two years earlier, according to The Florida Bulldog.
Lawmakers passed a bill last year imposing a $10,000 fine, public censure, the repayment of all compensation for lobbying or a combination of those three punishments if a person is found in violation of the lobby ban.
Garcia said he didn’t have an issue with the two year ban after leaving office, but said the implementing bill passed by the Legislature went too far.
“This six years, it’s a very long time,” Garcia said. “That in itself is where we have to try to strike that balance. I don’t think people are inherently corrupt just because they lobby a body that they left.”