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DeSantis just signed a controversial ethics bill. Here's what it includes.

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday night quietly approved new restrictions on the investigation of state and local officials for suspected public corruption and ethics violations, but local officials say the move will likely result in limited state oversight of elected officials.

Under the new law, state and local ethics commissions may investigate complaints against public officials only if someone with personal knowledge “other than hearsay” agrees to identify himself by name and make a complaint under oath about suspected misconduct.

The measure also strips local ethics commissions of the ability to conduct their own investigations into ethics violations – a powerful tool that has led to complaints from influential elected officials, including former Miami Commissioner Alex Diaz de la Portilla.

For decades, Florida law allowed local governments to establish their own ethics enforcement procedures. The new law, which went into effect Friday, sets uniform standards for ethics rules across the state. That means local ethics boards cannot set stricter rules than the Florida Ethics Commission.

Supporters of the bill say the intent is to prevent “politically motivated” or “frivolous” complaints. But in Miami-Dade County, where ethics commissioners currently investigate government scandals, officials have said the changes would undermine their ability to investigate some of the worst cases of ethical – and sometimes criminal – violations.

Jose Arrojo, executive director of the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust, said in April it was unclear what would happen to the ongoing cases.

“I don't know what that would mean for the complaints we have about the pipeline,” Arrojo said. At the time, he said, he tried to reach out to the governor and his staff to urge them to block the bill.

DeSantis did not explain why he agreed to the changes, but his actions came after the governor's top lawyer expressed interest in making changes to how Florida handles ethics investigations after two of DeSantis' top aides were investigated for ethics violations, according to a report by POLITICO Florida. The aides were ultimately acquitted.

What changes will the new law bring?

Starting October 1, all ethics complaints will have to meet stricter standards before an investigation can begin. Among the changes are that complaints submitted anonymously or based on hearsay will not be investigated.

In other words, unless the allegation is supported by a sworn complaint and personal knowledge of the misconduct, state law will prevent state and local ethics commissions from opening investigations.

The push to weaken the state's ethics laws comes at a time when Republicans in Florida have said – without citing specific examples – that the changes are necessary to prevent ethics complaints from being weaponized for political purposes.

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“I just think the level of instrumentalization among the parties that want to use this justifies a higher standard now,” House Speaker Paul Renner (Republican of Palm Coast) told reporters in March.

Senate President Kathleen Passidomo expressed concern that in some jurisdictions “the right to self-initiation is or could be politicized and used as a weapon.”

“All too often, the current process is weaponized by bad actors,” Passidomo said in March.

The new law also provides fixed time limits for the duration of ethical investigations.

For example, the Florida Ethics Commission must complete the preliminary investigation, which ends with a finding of reasonable suspicion, no later than one year after the preliminary investigation begins. The commission must also begin the preliminary investigation within 30 days of receiving a legally sufficient referral or complaint.

Anna Harden

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