Ethics complaints allege DeSantis abused his office ‘for personal gain’

By Zac Anderson, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, June 26, 2023.

Reporting by the USA TODAY NETWORK – Florida revealing that top staff in Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office helped line up endorsements for his presidential campaign is fueling ethics complaints against the state employees.

The Florida Democratic Party announced Wednesday that it has filed complaints with the Florida Commission on Ethics and the Florida Elections Commission against DeSantis Chief of Staff James Uthmeier, Legislative Affairs Director Stephanie Kopelousos, and Director of Policy and Budget Chris Spencer.

USA TODAY NETWORK – Florida reported last month that Kopelousos and Spencer were involved in rounding up endorsements for DeSantis’ campaign from members of the Florida Legislature during a time when lawmaker’s bills and budget priorities were at the mercy of the governor’s office, according to three GOP sources with knowledge of the conversations.

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The Florida Democratic Party cited the USA TODAY NETWORK – Florida article, and articles by NBC News that detail how staff in the governor’s office were involved in fundraising for his presidential campaign, as the basis for the ethics complaints.

NBC News reported that Uthmeier coordinated an effort by DeSantis administration officials to raise money from lobbyists for the governor’s campaign.

The state budget had yet to be finalized when DeSantis’ top staff members – who wield immense influence over the budget process – were working to raise money and line up endorsements for his campaign.

“These allegations represent a gross violation of state laws and ethics,” Florida Democratic Party Chair Nikki Fried said in a statement. “and we could not in good conscience ignore them. If true, they are yet another example of Ron abusing his public office for personal gain. Public officials are employed to serve the people of Florida, not line Ron’s pockets.

“Any reasonable person could infer from the reporting that our governor was holding the state budget hostage in exchange for political endorsements and donations — actions that are both unethical and illegal,” Fried added. “This corrupt scheme to generate fake support for his failing presidential campaign is both a major threat to our democracy and a sad look into the psyche of a man whose ambitions have driven him and his sycophants to lives of crime.”

DeSantis spokesman Jeremy Redfern said he’s adding the ethics complaints “to the list of politically motivated attacks.”

“We know the great work he’s accomplished as governor,” Redfern added. “If the executive team wants to fundraise, knock doors, or volunteer their free time, more power to them – they have First Amendment rights like every American.”

The ethics complaints were filed the same day the Washington Post reported on another episode involving DeSantis that raises potential ethical questions.

DeSantis donor and University of Florida Board of Trustees chairman Mori Hosseini lent a golf simulator to the governor’s mansion in 2019, according to the Post. Such simulators start at around $27,500.

A letter from Uthmeier obtained by the Post says that he has “reviewed and approved the circumstances of this loan to the Mansion Commission and verify that it is permissible in accordance with the Governor’s Ethics Code and Florida Statutory Code.”

Caroline Klancke, executive director of the not-for-profit Florida Ethics Institute and a former general counsel and deputy executive director of the Florida Ethics Commission, told the paper that any Ethics Commission review of the donation likely would look at whether anyone else had access to the golf equipment other than DeSantis, an avid golfer.

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“This would be ripe for their scrutiny if a complaint were to be filed,” Klancke said of the Ethics Commission.

Redfern told the Post that “As with all donations, (the golf simulator) was accepted and coordinated by staff and approved by legal counsel. Donations to the residence and grounds have been received over many administrations. It will remain in the state’s possession for the use of first families, their guests, and staff as it is now.”

 Image Credits: Damon Winter/The New York Times