Elections

Court OKs Rivera ethics fine — but will state House speaker impose it?

Then-U.S. Rep. David Rivera speaks to the Miami media in 2012, defending himself on ethics charges filed by the state.
Then-U.S. Rep. David Rivera speaks to the Miami media in 2012, defending himself on ethics charges filed by the state. EL NUEVO HERALD

For four years, former state Rep. David Rivera has fought charges that he broke Florida ethics rules. He fought through his two-year term as a member of Congress, and his two years out of office after that, all the way to a Tallahassee appeals court — which on Wednesday upheld a hefty ethics fine against the Miami Republican.

Now — barring further legal entanglements — the question is whether the speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, the legislative body to which Rivera hopes to return, will make Rivera pay.

The First District Court of Appeal “summarily” rejected Rivera’s contention that the $57,821.96 penalty recommended last year by an administrative law judge was improper due to “procedural errors” by the Florida Commission on Ethics. Rivera is running for the House again, now as a newly minted millionaire.

“Rivera did not challenge the ethical violations found by the Commission and we find no merit in the due process claims he raised on appeal,” the court wrote.

However, the court left open the possibility for Rivera to sue again — if the House speaker ultimately imposes the fine. And Rivera and his attorney suggested they might have other legal avenues open to them as well.

One of Rivera’s appeal arguments had been that it’s unconstitutional for the speaker to discipline a former House member. Florida law requires the speaker — not the ethics commission or administrative judge — to penalize a lawmaker found in violation of ethics rules. The court said it couldn’t rule on that question until if and when the speaker fines Rivera, because the disciplinary process won’t be “complete” until the speaker takes action.

State law “gives the Speaker the power to impose penalties, but no statute requires the Speaker to accept or otherwise act on the Commission’s recommendation,” the court wrote. “And, here, there is no indication in the record that the Speaker intends to take disciplinary action against Rivera since he is no longer a member of the House. As a result, any ruling that we might provide at this stage of the proceeding on the constitutional challenge raised by Rivera would amount to an improper advisory opinion.”

Rivera’s attorney, Leonard Collins, a former House employee himself, indicated that he might find a way to challenge the law’s constitutionality even without action by the speaker. It’s unclear if such a challenge would involve asking the appeals court to reconsider whether Rivera’s claim is timely, for example, or trying to get the Florida Supreme Court to hear the case.

“The court only determined it would not rule on the constitutionality question at this time, but we are pleased it also did not reject our argument,” Collins said in an email to the Miami Herald. “Accordingly, we consider this a significant victory that we will continue to pursue on appeal.”

Rivera said he was “very pleased.” “Great win,” he said in a text message to a Herald reporter. “Far from Over. I have not yet begun to fight.”

Speaker Steve Crisafulli of Merritt Island served with Rivera from 2008-10. Incoming Speaker Richard Corcoran of Land O’Lakes wasn’t elected until 2010, the year Rivera was term-limited out of office — but Corcoran worked years earlier as chief of staff for then-Speaker Marco Rubio. Rubio named Rivera his budget chief, and the two men used to own a Tallahassee home together.

“The Speaker is reviewing the court ruling,” Crisafulli’s office said in a statement to the Herald. “The Ethics Commission has not yet forwarded the case to the Florida House.”

As a state legislator more than six years ago, Rivera failed to properly disclose his income and double-billed taxpayers for travel by accepting a state reimbursement for a trip paid for by his political campaign.

Rivera was later elected to Congress, where he served from 2010-12. He’s once again a candidate for the state House, where his latest financial disclosure forms have raised questions about how Rivera has acquired new wealth in his three years out of public office.

A separate, federal criminal investigation identified Rivera as a “co-conspirator” in an illegal campaign-finance scheme Rivera is suspected of orchestrating in the 2012 congressional election. He has not been charged.

This story has been updated. An earlier version misstated Collins’ past position in the Florida House. He was not a representative.

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