There was Frank Peterman, Jr., a state agency secretary whose excessive travel between Tallahassee and his St. Petersburg home cost taxpayers thousands of dollars.
And Renee Lee, a Hillsborough County attorney who covertly received a pay bump without her board knowing and then broke the law to justify it.
What do these former public officials have in common with former Tallahassee mayor and Democratic nominee for governor Andrew Gillum? A $5,000 fine from the Florida Commission on Ethics.
On Wednesday, Gillum agreed to settle his state ethics case stemming from the investigation into trips with a Tallahassee businessman to Costa Rica and New York for the Broadway hit “Hamilton.” In reaching an agreement, a state ethics commission lawyer said she would drop four of five charges if Gillum paid a $5,000 fine.
Gillum said the settlement was “vindication” that he never knowingly broke the law, but the size of the fine was much higher than the typical penalty from the state’s ethics watchdog.
Since 1975, the Florida Commission on Ethics has found violations of state and local laws in 929 cases, according to a Tampa Bay Times review of a state database of fines. Of those cases, Gillum’s fine was in the top 8 percent.
Half the cases with fines were for less than $630. That median rose in the last decade — to about $1,000 — but that’s still a fraction of what Gillum agreed to pay.
The Florida Commission on Ethics is limited in what it can investigate. The agency reviews complaints that a public official violated state ethics statutes, which are civil offenses. A law enforcement agency would handle a corruption probe. The commission recommends the fine and someone else, usually the governor, decides whether it stands.
The maximum fine for violating an ethics law is $10,000, though multiple violations can lead to higher penalties. The commission can also demand an official pay restitution if he or she is accused of taking from government coffers. Rarely is someone fined $10,000 or more.
Former U.S. Rep. David Rivera of Miami was. The state ethics board fined Rivera $16,500 after he failed to disclose consulting income from a casino when he worked in the Legislature. According to the investigation, Rivera helped the gaming industry pass legislation and the casino paid Rivera through a consulting firm in his mother’s name, which then sent the money to the Republican lawmaker.
The highest fine of the last four decades went to a former St. Petersburg warehouse employee who steered city purchases to his business during the 1990s. The commission recommended a $40,000 fine.
Gillum’s troubles with the ethics commission escalated in January when commissioners unanimously found probable cause that he illegally accepted gifts valued over $100 from Tallahassee businessman and lobbyist Adam Corey and two undercover FBI agents posing as developers. In the agreement with the ethics commission, Gillum acknowledged that he “should have known that they were given to influence action.” The full commission must still vote on the agreement.
The trips to Costa Rica and New York hindered Gillum throughout his unsuccessful campaign for governor. His Republican opponent Ron DeSantis often cited the FBI investigation into Tallahassee government on the trail, in ads and during debates. Gillum has insisted he is not the subject of the federal probe.
It’s unclear how Gillum and the ethics commission lawyer settled on a $5,000 fine. It’s an amount that has been used to penalize serious offenses by state officials as well as bizarre misconduct by local politicians.
In 2015, the commission slapped Charlotte County Commissioner Robert Skidmore with a $5,000 fine after he allegedly tried to get a city official to approve a liquor license for a constituent in exchange for a NASCAR autograph. He also offered a pay raise to another city worker if she shut down a restaurant owned by the father of his wife’s child.
It’s also the penalty the ethics board recommended last year for Madeira Beach City Commissioner Nancy Oakley after she was accused of drunkenly berating other city officials, licking the city manager’s face and grabbing one by the crotch.
And $5,000 is not much less than the $6,000 the commission in 2018 fined Rick Fernandez, a former Tallahassee city manager accused, in part, of accepting Florida State University football tickets.
Who gave Fernandez the tickets? The same lobbyist at the center of Gillum’s case — Adam Corey.