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Ethics Panel Rejects Cable Company's Bid To Use DeSantis In COVID-19 PSA's

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has been a frequent presence on television throughout the coronavirus crisis, and a leading cable TV company wanted to use him in special announcements to keep Florida residents informed. But the idea hit a major snag Friday as the state Commission on Ethics rejected the idea.

The cable TV giant that runs Bay News 9 in Tampa Bay and News 13 in Orlando wants to produce public service announcements during the pandemic, featuring one of the state's best known faces: Ron DeSantis. There's just one problem. That runs afoul of a law that prohibits lobbyists or their clients from giving anything of value to public officials who are bound by state ethics laws, including the governor.

The case went before the Commission on Ethics Friday in an emergency meeting conducted by phone under the state's shelter-in-place order. Tallahassee lawyer Ron Meyer said Charter Communications wanted to produce the TV spots as a public service.

"Charter recognizes that we're in the midst of a health emergency," Meyer said. "It also recognizes that it has a platform that enables the repetitive and timely communication of information. Public service announcements, if you will."

Meyer, considered an authority on the ethics laws, is well aware that in 2005, the ethics commission rejected a proposal by the company formerly known as Bell South to produce advertisements featuring legislators to promote some of its products. A few years later, the Legislature enacted a sweeping gift ban that prohibits companies that lobby the Legislature or executive branch from giving anything of value -- other than report-able campaign contributions -- to the governor and other public officials.

By a 6-to-3 vote, the ethics commission agreed with a staff legal opinion and rejected the cable company's proposal. Speaking for the majority was Willie Meggs, the former long-time Tallahassee prosecutor, who said the existing law should not be weakened.

"You almost have to be under a rock to not know that we have a problem with the coronavirus. I just don't see the need to change anything, and I think we need to adopt this opinion," Meggs said.

Another ethics panel member, Tony Carvajal of Tallahassee, strongly disagreed. "I am even more concerned that by interpreting publicity as a gift, we are creating very interesting risks," Carvajal said. "My concern is where does this stop?"

Carvajal said he envisioned a slippery slope where senior state officials would avoid speaking to trade associations and interest groups that employ lobbyists because of fears of running afoul of ethics laws. 

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Steve Bousquet has covered state government and politics for three decades at the Sun Sentinel, Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald. He was the Times' Tallahassee bureau chief from 2005 to 2018 and has also covered city and county politics in Broward County. He has a master's degree in U.S. history from Florida State.