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First step in an ethics case: The citizen

It's tempting to joke that Florida currently has four branches of government: executive, legislative, judicial — and David Plyer.

Plyer is a retired electrical engineer in Clearwater. Using the right of any Floridian, he has filed three high-profile complaints recently with the state Commission on Ethics:

• Against Ray Sansom, the former speaker of the state House, for his relationship with a North Florida community college.

• Against Buddy Johnson, the former elections supervisor in Hillsborough County, whose tenure more or less looks like a disaster.

• Against Jeff Kottkamp, our lieutenant governor, recently in the news for the number of trips he has taken on state aircraft.

Plyer said Wednesday he's probably finished in the complaint department for now. "I don't want to wear out my welcome up there," he joked.

In filing these complaints, Plyer is acting as Just Some Guy. All he knows is what he's seen in the news. Anybody else could have done it, too.

So, why are his complaints any good?

Because that's how it works in Florida. The ethics commission cannot start an investigation by itself. It has to wait for a citizen to pull the trigger.

From time to time, someone wants to change this.

The ethics commission itself has proposed on occasion that it have the power to start its own investigations. The Legislature did not exactly rush to grant it.

At the other extreme, the Legislature also has considered requiring that a citizen have "firsthand knowledge" of an offense to file. But that idea (rightly) died, too.

Even Plyer is not sure that the ethics commission should be able to start its own investigations. He likens its role to the U.S. Supreme Court, which doesn't just run around launching its own cases — it's there to rule on matters brought to it by the people.

There are some misconceptions about this process.

Not only does the commission lack the power to start its own cases, but it also lacks the power to punish. It only recommends a punishment to the authority with the power to impose it, such as the Legislature or governor.

Neither does the commission just sit around deliberating, by its own opinion, what is "ethical." All it can do is rule whether state law has been violated. The commission is only as strong as the law itself. Violations of the ethics law are civil matters, not criminal.

In 2008, the nine-member commission (appointed by the governor, House speaker and Senate president) took action on 208 cases.

More than half, 111, were dismissed as legally insufficient. In 81 cases, the commission went on to decide whether there was "probable cause" to proceed.

In 11 cases, the commission found a violation but saw no need for further action. In eight, the commission reached a settlement involving a fine or other punishment. Only two subjects went to a full hearing. They lost.

In sum, the vast majority of the time, the subject of an ethics commission complaint is able to say that he or she has been "exonerated." And most of the time, that's a fair result. But not always.

So remember the limits the commission operates under. Hence the role played by citizens such as David Plyer.

"More than anything else," he says, "I just wanted somebody to look at this."

Because of him, it'll at least look.

First step in an ethics case: The citizen 02/25/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 25, 2009 7:35pm]
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