Government watchdogs will lose some ethics oversight powers under bill DeSantis signed

Gov. Ron DeSantis quietly approved new restrictions Friday on how watchdog commissions can investigate state and local officials for suspected public corruption and ethical violations, even as local officials say the move will likely result in less government oversight of elected officials.

Under the new law, state and local ethics panels will be allowed to investigate complaints against public officials only if someone with personal knowledge “other than hearsay” is willing to identify themselves by name and file a complaint under oath about suspected wrongdoing.

The measure also strips local ethics panels’ ability to launch their own investigations into ethics violations — a powerful tool that has led to the indication of powerful elected officials, including former Miami Commissioner Alex Diaz de la Portilla.

For decades, Florida law allowed local governments to adopt their own ethics enforcement procedures. The new law — which went into effect Friday — sets a uniform statewide standards for ethics rules, meaning that local ethics boards will not be able to set more stringent standards than the ones set for the Florida Commission on Ethics.

Supporters of the bill say the intent is to prevent “politically motivated” or “frivolous” complaints. But in Miami-Dade County, where ethics officers are currently digging into government scandals, officials have said the changes will undermine their ability to investigate some of the most egregious instances of ethical – and sometimes criminal – violations.

Read more: Government watchdogs would lose some teeth under bill headed to DeSantis

Jose Arrojo, the executive director of the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust, recently told the Herald/Times it is unclear what will happen to the cases that are ongoing.

“I don’t know what it would do to the complaints that we have on the pipeline,” Arrojo said in April, when he said he had been trying to reach the governor and his staff to urge them to veto the bill.

DeSantis did not explain why he approved the changes. His actions, however, come after the governor’s top lawyer expressed interest in changing aspects of how ethics investigations are handled in Florida after two of DeSantis’ top aides were investigated for ethical violations, according to a POLITICO Florida report. The aides were eventually cleared.

What changes under the new law?

Starting Oct. 1, all ethics complaints will need to meet higher standards before there can be an investigation. Among the changes: complaints that are filed anonymously or that are based on hearsay will not be investigated.

In other words, unless there is a sworn complaint with personal knowledge of wrongdoing that accompanies the allegation, state law will prevent state and local ethics panels from investigating.

The push to weaken the state’s ethics laws comes as Florida Republicans have said – without citing specific examples — that the changes are needed to prevent the “weaponization” of ethics complaints for political gain.

“I just think the level of weaponization among parties that would seek to use this justifies now a higher standard,” House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, told reporters in March.

Senate President Kathleen Passidomo had similar concerns. She said she had concerns that in some jurisdictions “the self-initiation powers are or could be politicized and weaponized.”

“All too often the current process is weaponized by bad actors,” Passidomo said in March.

The new law will also put in firm deadlines for how long ethics investigations should take.

For instance, the Florida Commission on Ethics will be required to complete the preliminary investigation, which concludes with a determination of probable cause, no later than one year after the start of the preliminary probe. The commission will also be required to begin the preliminary investigation within 30 days of receiving a legally sufficient referral or complaint.