Ethics panel finds that Nikki Fried may have violated Florida disclosure laws

An ethics complaint alleged Democratic Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who is running for governor, failed to properly disclose over $400,000 she earned as a lobbyist.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who is running for the Democratic nomination for Florida governor.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who is running for the Democratic nomination for Florida governor. [ LYNNE SLADKY | AP ]
Published Dec. 8, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Commission on Ethics announced Wednesday there is probable cause that Agriculture Commissioner and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Nikki Fried violated state financial disclosure laws after she was accused of inaccurately reporting her income from her time as a lobbyist.

An ethics complaint filed in June, days after Fried filed her paperwork to run for governor as a Democrat, was made by Leon County Republican Chair Evan Power, who is also a top-ranking member of the Florida GOP. In the document, he alleged Fried failed to properly disclose over $400,000 she earned as a medical marijuana lobbyist through the consulting firm Igniting Florida.

On May 28, four days before filing her paperwork to challenge Gov. Ron DeSantis, Fried’s campaign amended two separate financial disclosure forms reporting income from 2017 and 2018 to reflect a significant discrepancy in her income. One form relating to 2018, when she first ran for office to be the state’s agriculture commissioner, was amended to increase her income from $72,000 to $351,480. On the second form, from 2017, her campaign changed her income amount from $84,000 to $165,761.

The forms amended by Fried must be filled out by all elected constitutional officers and candidates to disclose assets, liabilities, net worth and sources of income over $1,000. According to a Florida Commission on Ethics rule, a person may amend a statement of financial interests “any time after filing the disclosure form.” If there’s a complaint filed, the candidate or elected official has 30 days to edit the form.

Although Power claims that Fried did not disclose lobbying work for the consulting firm Colodny Fass in 2017 and 2018, the panel’s investigative report confirms that the Office of Florida Lobbyist Registration and Compensation doesn’t show Fried was registered as a lobbyist for the firm during that two-year period and that she did not earn any pay from them. She was last registered as a lobbyist for Colodny Fass in 2016.

Once probable cause has been found, the person accused of an ethics violation has a right to a public hearing or trial where evidence can be presented. The hearings are held by an administrative law judge from the Division of Administrative Hearings. Alternatively, the person can also resolve the issue through a stipulated settlement entered into with a commission advocate.

Probable cause is not a final determination that a violation has happened. In either case, the issue still has to go back to the Ethics Commission, which will determine if the person broke the law and then agree on a penalty.

The announcement Wednesday, though not final, is surely to add fire to Fried’s Republican critics, who claim Fried maliciously concealed her work with the marijuana industry. Fried is one of several top contenders for the Democratic nomination in a primary race that also includes U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist and Florida Sen. Annette Taddeo.

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Fried’s campaign has previously denied Power’s allegations and explained that the change was due to a “filing error” which led to her failing to provide information on other assets supplemental to her net income. Fried said she only became aware of the problem in May 2021 after speaking with her accountant and moved to change it.

Drew Godinich, Fried’s campaign press secretary, called the ruling “politically-driven and baseless” and said the Ethics Commission should denounce the complaint, which he called a “sham.”

“Commissioner Fried is being attacked for following the law and showing transparency, exactly the opposite of what Republican Ron DeSantis and his cohorts do every day,” Godinich said in a statement, calling Power a “disgraced Republican Party official” who filed a “false and fraudulent ethics complaint.”

The amended disclosure forms are not the only questions surrounding Fried’s finances since she launched her gubernatorial campaign this summer. She also filed a disclosure form two months after the July 1 deadline, a day before Florida law imposes a fine of $25 a day for the missed deadline. The form showed her net worth neared $1 million and that she owned a significant stake in a major marijuana company.

Her campaign has said that she would sell her stake in the company if she’s elected governor.

Meanwhile, DeSantis’ press secretary, Christina Pushaw, said she has not reviewed the complaint or supporting documents tied to Fried’s ethics complaint and that she would not “speculate on the outcome of the complaints.”

However, she offered four paragraphs as “context,” and in those paragraphs, she detailed what Fried has reported as income in financial disclosure forms and noted how that reporting has “understandably generated some critical media coverage and raised questions from Fried’s opponents.”

“And those facts are not in dispute,” Pushaw said. “It is therefore puzzling that Fried’s spokesperson Drew Godinich issued a statement dismissing the ethics complaint as ‘false information,’ ‘politically inspired,’ and a ‘nuisance’ not warranting further investigation. He did not specify what, exactly, is ‘false.’”

When asked why the governor’s office was quick to respond to Fried’s case but remains silent on an ethics case involving a no-party candidate accused of violating campaign finance laws in an attempt to sway a Miami election in favor of a Republican candidate, Pushaw said she was reacting to Fried’s campaign spokesperson’s claims — not the findings in her case.

“I don’t believe our office has reacted to the finding of either case,” Pushaw said. “My comment to you [Miami Herald] was a reaction to Fried’s spokesperson’s inflammatory and false statement in response to the finding of probable cause.”

In October, DeSantis received a complaint from the Florida Commission on Ethics that recommends he fine a Miami no-party candidate $20,000 and formally reprimand him for violating campaign finance laws, which included accepting money from a former Miami state senator and Republican operative, Frank Artiles, prior to qualifying to run in a 2020 state Senate race.

Rodriguez and Artiles are facing criminal charges in Miami in connection to the alleged election scheme. They were charged in March. DeSantis has yet to comment on the ethics or criminal case, or the allegations.

Pushaw said last week the no-party candidate’s ethics case is still awaiting review.