Without any debate, members of the state ethics commission on Friday agreed that former U.S. Rep. David Rivera should pay $57,821.96 for improperly accepting state money for travel when he served as a state representative.
It will now be up to the Florida House to decide whether to penalize its former member.
Rivera, who was in Tallahassee on Friday but did not attend the ethics hearing, declined to comment on the final order from the ethics commission.
But his attorney Leonard Collins called it “expected,” and said he planned to appeal to the First District Court of Appeal.
“This is a really unfortunate case,” Collins said, raising a host of concerns about how the ethics commission handled Rivera’s case.
Rivera, a Miami Republican who has been out of state office since 2010, has been dogged by allegations of ethics violations for nearly five years. He has denied wrongdoing.
In 2012, Administrative Law Judge Judge David Watkins determined that Rivera had failed to properly disclose his income and had double-billed taxpayers for state travel. The judge later recommended a $16,500 fine and $41,321.96 in restitution.
In asking the ethics commission to approve the penalty Friday, advocate Lisa Raleigh pointed out that Rivera submitted more than one improper financial disclosure form.
“This was an activity that went on for years,” Raleigh said. “It was quite frankly an appalling breach of trust.”
She also answered questions from commissioners about the nature of Rivera’s travel.
“Typically what happens when you travel for the government is you pay for the travel up front and then the government reimburses you,” Raleigh said. “What he did is have someone else pay for his travel, and then the government reimbursed him for money he was not out.”
Collins said both the travel and the reimbursements had been “legitimate.”
“This commission doesn’t have the right to get into how that money was spent,” he added.
Before the hearing, Collins filed motions to have each member of the ethics commission disqualified from the case on account of bias or prejudice against Rivera.
All declined to recuse themselves.
Collins also said Rivera had been denied his due process rights because the previous advocate said she would not issue a penalty. And he raised questions about whether the ethics commission or the Florida House had the authority to fine a former member.
A spokesperson for Florida House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, called the matter “very serious.”
“However, Mr. Rivera has a right to appeal the Ethics Commission’s decision before the issue comes before the House,” Michael Williams said. “The House will not have a comment on this matter until then.”
Separate from the ethics case, Rivera remains under federal criminal investigation as the suspected mastermind of an unrelated federal campaign-finance scheme. He has been identified by a federal prosecutor in open court as a “co-conspirator“ in the case, but has not been indicted.
Two people have already been convicted in the case. Rivera’s friend, Ana Alliegro, pleaded guilty last August to conspiring with the former Republican congressman to finance a novice candidate — Justin Lamar Sternad — who challenged Rivera’s archrival, Joe Garcia, in the 2012 Democratic primary. Sternad pleaded guilty in 2013 to violating election laws, and was sentenced last year to seven months in prison.
Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.