TAMPA — The Florida Commission on Ethics has agreed to investigate whether Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan violated state law by not being specific enough on his financial disclosure statement.
George Niemann, a member of the grassroots group United Citizens’ Action Committee, filed an ethics complaint against Hagan because the commissioner did not specify the assets in his investment portfolio. In Hagan’s latest financial disclosure, filed in December, he listed $401,000 under “investment account” and $219,000 under “retirement accounts.”
Hagan’s previous disclosure statements are filled out the same way. He was first elected to the commission in 2002.
“I think the public needs to know what a public official, who’s making big decisions and spending our money, that they have no conflicts of interest,” Niemann said. “We have a right to know what our officials are doing with our money and that there is no conflict of interest.”
Niemann said the ethics commission notified him that it would be investigating whether Hagan violated state law. The commission does not comment publicly on cases until they go to the commission’s board and are either dismissed or found to be legally sufficient to indicate the law may have been broken.
Hagan, while refusing to discuss details of the complaint, called it a “laughable” stunt by Niemann to get publicity. In 2013, Niemann filed a complaint against Hagan with the state Elections Commission, but it was not upheld.
“George has filed a number of these complaints across the years,” Hagan said. “They’re based on political opposition and an insatiable appetite for self-promotion and to read his name in the paper.”
In the past six years, Niemann has filed ethics complaints against former County Administrator Pat Bean, former County Attorney Renee Lee and former Commissioner Kevin White. The ethics commission found probable cause that all three broke the law, but only Lee was fined $5,000.
Bean appealed her case to an administrative law judge, who recommended the ethics charges be dropped. The commission agreed.
White’s ethics charges were also dropped but only because a federal jury had found him guilty of corruption.
Hagan said he has filed his reports the same way for 12 years.
“If I filed incorrectly, I will gladly make any necessary changes,” Hagan said.
Instructions on the state’s financial disclosure Form 6 for “How to Describe the Asset” say a public official should identify the type of property or the name of the business or person who owns the business in which the official has invested.
The section goes on to say that the official should not list simply “stocks and bonds” or “bank accounts.” It gives examples on the right way to do it: “Stock (Williams Construction Co.); Bonds (Southern Water and Gas).”
The purpose of financial disclosure is to let the public know if elected officials have a conflict of interest when they conduct public business. For instance, a commissioner would have a conflict of interest if he or she pushed for approval of a subdivision being built by a company in which he or she owned stock.
“What we’re really trying to find out is what biases people might have as a public office holder,” said Tom Scarritt, a Tampa attorney and former chairman of the state ethics commission.
The disclosure form’s instructions on listing assets have been largely the same for many years, said Virlindia Doss, the ethics commission’s executive director. Doss has worked for the ethics commission since 2003 and before that prosecuted cases there.
One change made in recent years allows officials to go back and correct their filing if the error is inconsequential, immaterial or too trivial to merit consideration.
“Reasonable minds can differ on what is immaterial,” Doss said. “If they left something off, is it because they’re trying to hide something or they just forgot? And those are the kinds of things you don’t know until someone has done some investigation.”
Doss said the commission offers ethics law training for public officials yearly. There is also audio on the commission website that explains the financial disclosure rules.
County Commissioner Victor Crist, who spent 18 years in the Florida Legislature, said he learned the correct way to fill out a financial disclosure form in one of the ethics commission’s training courses.
“What we were told to do is if we had individual stock portfolios, we had to list the stocks, the bonds and the values of those individually,” Crist said. “If there were any mutual funds we did not have to break down what the mutual funds were invested in. But we did have to report the individual mutual funds.”
A copy of Crist’s latest disclosure report listed three mutual funds totaling $233,011, bank accounts, with each of the banks listed separately, worth $123,896, a life insurance policy worth 11,581, and a family trust worth more than $2 million. Crist said he is a beneficiary of the trust, which belongs to his father.
Crist also reported his business, Metropolitan Communications, which he estimated is worth $235,461. His income from the business last year was $7,764, according to his disclosure report.
“The purpose of financial disclosure is not to determine someone’s worth; it’s not to determine how they handle their money,” Crist said. “It’s to open up a window for public scrutiny of whether you have a conflict of interest.”