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Saturday, April 11, 2020

Florida ethics panel rejects COVID-19 announcements plan, upholds ban on free publicity or exposure

Posted By on Sat, Apr 11, 2020 at 12:00 AM

  • Photo via Ron DeSantis/Facebook
The Florida Commission on Ethics rejected a request Friday to alter the state’s 15-year-old lobbying “gift ban,” as a cable-television and internet company wanted to run public-service announcements from Gov. Ron DeSantis and other state officials about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Commissioners voted 6-3 to maintain a ban against providing free publicity or exposure, after Charter Communications wanted to run messages from DeSantis on its Spectrum networks, which reach about 2.5 million people across Central Florida and the western Panhandle.

“By basically providing elected officials an opportunity to appear in professionally produced public-service announcements, it’s basically an opportunity to provide them with additional advertising opportunities,” said Commissioner Daniel Brady, one of DeSantis’ five appointees to the ethics panel. “There are more news announcements by elected officials on the course and status of the COVID-19 than any of us have ever seen in our lifetimes.”

Commission Chairwoman Kimberly Rezanka, also a DeSantis appointee, warned the carve-out could set a dangerous precedent.

“When one person is shown in a PSA, there may be another agency head that may ask to be put in one,” Rezanka said. “And there are companies that analyze how much your name in the paper is worth, or your name on the internet is worth or your name on television.”

State law prevents lobbyists and organizations that hire lobbyists from providing gifts to state officials —- what is known in Tallahassee as the gift ban. Charter hires lobbyists to work on issues in the Legislature and the executive branch.

Charter attorney Ron Meyer argued that the request was strictly to put out narrowly crafted, but timely, messages from leaders —- such as the governor and the state surgeon general —- about safety during the ongoing health crisis.
“A public-service announcement dealing with COVID-19 coming from Ron DeSantis will carry substantially more public weight than one coming from Ron Meyer, who nobody knows,” Meyer said.

Meyer, who noted Florida is one of the few states to prohibit the direct use of elected officials in public-service spots, rejected an assertion that PSAs featuring lower-ranking agency officials, celebrities or athletes could carry the same impact as PSAs by leaders directly involved in pandemic-related issues.

“I’m not sure that (former Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback) Jameis Winston could communicate as effectively as perhaps the commissioner of education could, information relating to whether schoolchildren could be returning to the classroom for the last two weeks of the school year,” Meyer said. “And I think parents would probably find the information coming from the commissioner of education or the superintendent of schools more reliable, more credible, timely certainly than a famous athlete.”

The vote followed a separate 6-3 decision against a proposal that would have allowed PSAs but only during simultaneously declared national and state emergencies and with state agencies selecting who would appear rather than firms connected to lobbyists.

“We have not seen anything like what we’re dealing with before,” said Commissioner Joanne Leznoff, who moved for the carve-out during the current crisis. “This is an unprecedented circumstance that, I’m not being over dramatic, this is life and death stuff.”

Leznoff, who formerly served as the top staff member on the House Appropriations Committee, is one of two commissioners appointed by the House speaker. The Senate president also names two commissioners.

Commissioner John Grant, a DeSantis appointee and former longtime lawmaker, suggested the commission revisit Leznoff’s proposal so that such public-service announcements could be made during any state of emergency, such as hurricanes.

“We could well have hurricanes starting this month, and we could have a big one coming in here and the governor may not have much time,” Grant said. “So I think any time there is a state of emergency, public-service announcements related to that state of emergency should be allowed for the duration of that emergency.”

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