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Commission on Ethics finds ‘no probable cause’ in Sawicki ethics complaint

By Staff | Mar 13, 2018

As per a staff advocate’s amended recommendation, the Florida Commission on Ethics has found no evidence to substantiate any violation of law by a former Cape Coral official accused of failing to report gifts and disclose potential conflicts of interest as required by state statutes.

The state commission on Friday unanimously approved the recommendation of advocate Elizabeth A. Miller who, in February, recommended that the commission find no probable cause on each of four complaint allegations filed against former mayor Marni Sawicki by then sitting Cape Coral City Councilmember Richard Leon.

Sawicki, who has consistently stated that she did nothing wrong and so expected to be cleared, could not be reached for comment.

The 50-plus page complaint was filed by Leon in August 2016 after the concerns were brought to his attention. He first brought the issue to the then-sitting City Council. When Council indicated it was more a matter for the state, Leon sent the complaint to the Florida Commission on Ethics.

Leon thanked the nine-member appointed board “that serves as the guardian of the standards of conduct for officers and employees of Florida and its political subdivisions and functions as an independent commission responsible for investigating and issuing public reports on complaints of breach of the public trust by public officers and employees” for its review.

“I cannot thank the Ethics Commission enough for recognizing that the former mayor needed to answer some questions regarding her past conduct,” he said via email Tuesday. “The year and a half investigation into the extra curricular activities was completed and all Florida residents should be proud that this board stands ready to hold elected officials across this state accountable.”

Miller had initially recommended one finding of probable cause.

“Based on the evidence before the Commission,” there was probable cause to believe Sawicki had violated state law pertaining to the disclosure of gifts valued at more than $100, Miller advised in November. After further review, however, Miller agreed with the argument subsequently submitted by Sawicki’s attorney that the gifts in question, jewelry, were received in the course of a relationship and so did not have to be disclosed. The statutory provision exempts gifts from relatives, defined to include those who intend to form a household and those who cohabitate.

“The gifts of jewelry were all valued at over $100 and they should have normally been reported on the gift form,” Miller said in her presentation to the commission on Friday. “However in this situation there is an exemption …”

To establish a violation of state statutes pertaining to the solicitation or acceptance of gifts accepted by a public official, three things must be proven: 1) that the person is a public officer, employee or a candidate for nomination or office; 2) that the person receiving the gifts solicited or accepted something of value including a gift, loan, reward, promise of future employment, favor or service and 3) that such solicitation or acceptance was based on an understanding that the item or items of value would influence an official vote, action or judgement.

None of the conditions that constitute a violation were met, according to the commission finding.

Meanwhile, a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation has also been under way. That investigation is still active, an agency official said Wednesday.

Sawicki previously said she expects a similar outcome.

Sawicki also previously notified the city, and Leon, that she would seek reimbursement for her legal fees if no violations were found.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect FDLE comment regarding the status of its investigation.