Miami Herald: Panel finds Fla. state senator violated ethics

Sep 11, 2009

The article was published in the Miami Herald on September 11, 2009

Associated Press Writer

The state Ethics Commission on Friday recommended that the Florida Senate discipline Sen. Gary Siplin for using his position to bully a sheriff’s deputy in a dispute over parking at a football game in 2006.

The panel voted 5-0 to send a report to the Senate suggesting the Orlando Democrat be censured, publicly reprimanded and ordered to get continuing education about the state’s ethics code for public officials.

“He abused his position as a senator,” the commission’s advocate, James Peterson, told the panel. “He pushed his way through a barricade that was closed to protect the public. He abused his position to bully police officers, and that is wrong.”

The commission accepted a recommended order from Administrative Law Judge R. Bruce McKibben, who heard testimony from the parties. The next step under state law would be to convene a Senate committee to decide what action, if any, to take.

Siplin’s lawyer, Mark Herron, said he would encourage his client to appeal in court on grounds the commission lacks the constitutional authority to submit such a recommendation to the Senate. He noted the constitution says the Senate has the sole authority to judge the qualifications of its members.

“The Florida Supreme Court’s interpreted that to mean the Commission on Ethics can’t initiate proceedings in the Senate,” Herron said.

McKibben, the administrative judge, wrote that Herron’s reading of the Supreme Court ruling was erroneous.

However, Herron did not make that argument to the commission, saying it’s a legal issue for the courts to decide. Instead, he denied Siplin violated the ethics code because he had no authority to hire, fire or discipline Orange County sheriff’s deputies.

“The commission is vested in this thought that any time one invokes one’s position it’s a violation of the code of ethics,” Herron said. “He could not take away their job. That was the threat – ‘I will have your job.'”

Siplin, though, has denied saying that to Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy Marcus Robinson, who filed the ethics complaint.

Robinson told McKibben that Siplin made the threat after he stopped the lawmaker’s car from entering the Citrus Bowl parking lot in Orlando through a street that was barricaded to protect pedestrians. Siplin had been invited to the game between Florida A&M University and Bethune-Cookman University by a group that wanted to interact with public officials.

Robinson’s superior was called to the scene and also told Siplin he couldn’t pass through the barricade. He eventually relented and let Siplin through but allowed Robinson to ticket him only for refusing to obey traffic laws. Siplin initially appealed but eventually paid the ticket.

McKibben wrote that Siplin’s “complete lack of recall of the events makes it difficult to give any of his testimony much weight.”

It’s not the first time Siplin, himself a lawyer, has had legal problems.

A jury convicted Siplin of felony grand theft for allegedly having an employee do campaign work on state time in 2004, but an appellate court threw out the verdict in 2007.