Former State Rep. and candidate for the U.S. Congress in District 16 Keith Fitzgerald may have violated Florida’s ethics laws by failing to disclose his conflict of interest in voting on more than $100 million dollars in appropriations for his employer, New College of Florida. The College gave Fitzgerald special employment treatment during his years in the legislature.
The Sarasota lawmaker may also have breached the public trust by using his political position to quietly earmarked millions of dollars to the small liberal arts school, which paid him a full-time salary totaling nearly $300,000 to teach part-time.
Florida House Rule 3.2 (a) says that “A member may not vote on any measure that the member knows or believes would inure to the member’s special private gain or loss. The member must disclose the nature of the member’s interest in the matter from which the member is required to abstain.” House Rule 3.2 (b) requires that members disclose “When voting on any measure that the member knows or believes would inure to the special private gain or loss of: a. Any principal by whom the member … is employed.”
House Rule 3.2 (c) requires that “If the vote is taken on the floor, disclosure under this rule or under any related law shall be accomplished by filing with the Clerk within 15 days after the vote occurs.”
Fitzgerald voted on the following budgets that provided New College with a total of $120,831,068:
• Chapter Law 2006-25, which provided $27,412,720 to New College in year 2006-07
• Chapter Law 2007-72 and 2007-326 (Special Session “C”), which provided $37,513,237 in 2007-2008
• Chapter Law 2008-152 and 2009-1 (Special Session “A”), which provided $31,359,534 in 2008-2009
• Chapter Law 2009-81, which provided $24,545,577 in 2009-2010
In an email on July 18, 2012 from Judy Skinner of the Office of the Clerk, “We find no notice of conflicts on file with the Clerk’s Office from Representative Keith Fitzgerald during his term (2006-2010).”
While voting on state funding for his employer, Fitzgerald benefited from special treatment that allowed him to keep 75% of his salary, but spend more than half of the spring semester in Tallahassee for the legislative session. The legislature was in session for nine of the semester’s 15 weeks.
The vast majority of his students gave him poor evaluations. A total of 75.5% of his students who filled out evaluations made negative comments including complaints that he was “tardy” and “inaccessible.”
The appropriations for New College include nearly $6 million dollars Fitzgerald quietly earmarked to the small liberal arts college of about 800 students.
In the 2007-2008 budgets, Fitzgerald requested $1,537,370 for New College for deferred maintenance. In the 2008-2009 budget, Fitzgerald, $4,440,000 in state funding for New College for deferred maintenance. The project received $2,680,937 in the 2009-2010 budget and $3,305,609 in the 2010-2011 budget.
The Observer Newspaper reported on the “altered treatment by New College for Fitzgerald” to allow him to stay on salary despite the fact that the legislature meets full-time for nine weeks in the spring each year. The paper reported that Fitzgerald earned 75% of his salary during the spring semester when the legislature is in session and was paid for a temporary administrative position in the summer to help make up for the slight reduction in salary. This type of situation — and others that appeared to be quid pro quos — prompted the Legislature to look at banning university employees from being legislators.” (Observer Newspaper 2.22.12)
State Senator John Thrasher introduced legislation to prohibit college professors from serving in the state legislature. The Associated Press reported on January 24, 2012 that “Sen. John Thrasher said the bill he’s sponsoring would prevent conflicts such as lawmakers voting on budget provisions that benefit the schools that employ them.” The Florida Times Union reported on January 6, 2012, that the bill was prompted by recent incidents where lawmakers helped a college or university they were associated with. Thrasher said told the paper the relationship “raises red flags” and “brings up an awkward situation when they have to do something like vote for the budget.”