South Florida

Ethics deadbeats: Debt collectors seek $500K in outstanding fines from Florida public servants

Former state Rep. J.C. Planas says he was unaware of his outstanding $225 fine for a late filing of a financial disclosure form. He said he sent the state ethics commission a letter and that a check will soon be in the mail.
Former state Rep. J.C. Planas says he was unaware of his outstanding $225 fine for a late filing of a financial disclosure form. He said he sent the state ethics commission a letter and that a check will soon be in the mail.

Under Florida law, public servants have to submit financial disclosure forms every year. And every year, there are elected and appointed officials who blow deadlines and ignore mounting late fees to file them.

It’s gotten this bad: The state ethics commission has hired debt collectors to chase $487,549.96 in late fees that have accumulated, in some cases, for more than a decade.

“I think it reflects poorly on the people who have been fined for not complying with the law,” said Ben Wilcox, research director of Integrity Florida, a nonprofit government watchdog.

The two-page disclosures — which list net worth, sources of income, real estate holdings and debts — have been the repeated source of trouble or controversy for politicians over the years.

Last election cycle, for instance, Gov. Rick Scott was sued by an opponent who claimed the governor’s disclosures hid $200 million in assets. For not listing interest he made on a loan to an infamous Ponzi schemer, Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez faces a $1,500 fine over his financial disclosure. And in a notorious Miami-Dade case that ended with a federal criminal trial, financial disclosures recently helped unravel ringer candidate Justin Sternad’s run for congress.

In Miami-Dade County alone, state records show at least 70 people owe debt collectors about $77,000 for not filing disclosures or for filing them late. Many seem to be average citizens who volunteer time on government boards.

At least one person on the list is dead. The violations go back to 2000 — closing in on the 20-year statute of limitations for collecting the fines.

Though the state has hired two collection agencies, which typically pester debtors with letters and calls, J.C. Planas — a former state representative and one of the few prominent names on the list — said he was unaware he owed $225 for submitting his 2009 disclosure late.

“I had no idea,” he said. “It was probably just an innocent mistake and I had no idea about the fines.”

After getting a call from a Miami Herald reporter, Planas responded by copying the reporter on a letter he had just written to the ethics commission, stating that a check was in the mail.

Anthony Alfieri, a University of Miami law professor and ethics expert, said the forms are intended to help the public “discover conflicts of interest and cronyism among public officials and powerful interest groups.”

“Public officials who fail to file timely and complete financial disclosures undermine the values of good government and encourage cynicism about the democratic process,” Alfieri wrote in an email.

Every year, the Florida Commission on Ethics mails financial disclosure forms to 38,000 required filers, which includes public defenders, public hospital employees and university employees.

Kerrie Stillman, a spokeswoman for the Florida Commission on Ethics, said most people meet the deadline. Less than one percent don’t.

Those laggards are fined $25 a day until they file or they hit the cap of $1,500 per year.

After 60 days — and a chance to appeal fines — unpaid debts get sent to collections. If the person is still in public office, and receives a salary, then the commission can garnish paychecks — a new power that was given to the commission last year.

As of the end of December, eight people were getting wages withheld by the state, including at least two Miami-Dade County school principals.

Many of the nearly 500 people on the ethics commission’s list seem to be local board appointees less likely to have knowledge of ethics requirements than, say, a city mayor. Some people contacted by the Herald said they had no clue they owed money, raising questions about how well cities and the ethics commission informs people of their requirement to file disclosures.

The state says Charles Plummer owes $1,500 from 2002, when he served on the South Miami pension board. He doesn’t even remember serving in that capacity, though he said he was appointed to the code enforcement board.

“I don’t remember the city clerk or the mayor or vice mayor, anybody — nobody came to the members and said, ‘You need to file this.’” said Plummer, who no longer lives in the city.

Plummer said he did get a notice in the mail that he owed the state money, but he didn’t take it seriously.

“I thought it was somebody trying to play a game,’’ he said. “ I had moved from the city a long time ago.”

He added: “If they want me to go back and file a piece of paper, I’d be more than happy to do that. But I don’t have $1,500 to give away. Unh-Unh.”

Stillman, the ethics commission spokeswoman, said the commission puts “monumental effort” into contacting people who have to file. At least three reminders are mailed before deadline. Then, the entire ethics commission staff — executive director included — takes to the phones.

Before the fee kicks in, employees call everyone who hasn‘t filed yet in an annual tradition billed the “phone fun day,” Stillman said.

“Everything here stops before that Sept. 1 deadline. And that’s nothing we’re required to do by law,” she said. “We place hundreds of calls that day.”

With so many non-filers, or late filers, critics question if fines are high enough to deter people from ignoring deadlines. The amount owed ballooned by almost $55,000 in just the last three months of 2014.

Wilcox said the problem is that some people “just kind of thumb their noses at those fines and it makes the ethics commission seem like it doesn’t have enough teeth to be effective and enforce the ethics laws.”

If a citizen files a complaint, people who are found in violation of disclosure laws can be publicly reprimanded, removed from office or fined up to $5,000.

Wilcox said the Legislature could approve tougher measures to make sure people pay fines — like placing liens on property owners. A proposal to do that failed in 2013.

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