By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
Florida’s top gun lobbyist Marion Hammer faces a probable cause hearing next week before the Florida Commission on Ethics regarding her failure to disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments from the National Rifle Association.
State Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, filed sworn complaints about Hammer with the Florida Senate and the ethics commission in May 2019. Two weeks before, Florida Bulldog reported the NRA paid Hammer hundreds of thousands of dollars that she had not disclosed for a decade on quarterly lobbyist compensations reports required by the Legislature.
Hammer largely skated past the Senate last year, when Lizbeth Benacquisto, a Republican political ally from Fort Myers who chairs the Senate Rules Committee, ignored Senate rules for how to conduct an investigation and instead steered the matter for “review” to a lawyer at the Office of Legislative Services, an entity under the control of Senate President Bill Galvano.
State law says the fine for late reports is “$50 per day per report for each late day up to a maximum of $5,000 per late report.” Hammer, however, wasn’t fined or otherwise disciplined. Instead, the lawyer told her to amend only four years of lobbyist registration records to show that she was employed by the “lobbying firm” Unified Sportsmen of Florida to represent the NRA before the Legislature. Hammer, who complied, is Unified Sportsmen’s $110,000-a-year executive director.
State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, who filed a similar complaint in the House, told the Sun-Sentinel she suspected Hammer had gotten special treatment. “A fine would have been a modest but positive decision,” she said. “If it was any other lobbyist who faced the same kind of complaint, I think the results would have been different.”
‘Not a pretty picture’
Thurston told the Tampa Bay Times the outcome showed “the power of the National Rifle Association in the Florida Legislature.”
“It is not a pretty picture,” he said.
Now, Hammer faces another official inquiry, albeit before a quasi-judicial agency with a reputation as a paper tiger.
The Ethics Commission’s probable cause hearing will be held in person on July 24 at 10 a.m. in the third-floor courtroom of the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee. Because Hammer did not waive her right to confidentiality, the public and press will be excluded.
Hammer and her attorney, Richard Coates, and the prosecutor, called the “Commission Advocate,” will get 10 minutes each to make statements to the nine-member commission.
“No witnesses may be called at this hearing and no new evidence may be introduced,” says a “confidential” notification letter obtained by Florida Bulldog. “The sole purpose of the probable cause hearing is to evaluate the results of the preliminary investigation.”
Commission Executive Director Chris Anderson ordered the inquiry after finding the complaint was legally sufficient. The preliminary investigation determines whether probable cause exists that an accused – in this case Hammer – violated Florida’s Code of Ethics. The commission’s staff investigates and writes a report, which is forwarded to the Commission Advocate, an assistant attorney general who represents the commission. The Advocate makes a recommendation as to whether there is probable cause to believe that there has been an ethics violation.
If the commission finds no probable cause to believe a violation occurred, the complaint will be dismissed. If the commission finds probable cause, a public hearing—similar to a trial—will be held before a state administrative law judge unless the two sides can reach an agreement. The complaint becomes public if probable cause is determined.
Florida Bulldog reported in May 2019 that Hammer received $270,000 from the NRA “for consulting services and legislative lobbying in Florida” in the wake of the 2018 Parkland school massacre. She was paid another $134,000 in 2017 “for legislative lobbying services in Florida.” Neither of those payments, described in internal NRA documents, was disclosed on the required quarterly lobbyist compensation reports.
Further, NRA tax returns show that Hammer received $147,000 in 2014, $172,000 in 2015 and $206,000 in 2016. The 2014-2018 totals: $929,000. None of it was reported to state lobbyist regulators, and, while Hammer is a registered lobbyist in the capital she has not filed any compensation reports since at least 2007.
When the initial Florida Bulldog story was published, Sen. Thurston said, “Florida’s lobbying disclosure law was passed in 2005 to give citizens more insight into the forces driving the legislative process. The National Rifle Association has had an outsized influence on the passage of pro-gun bills for more than two decades. Floridians have a right to know just how much money was driving that agenda, and why those payments were never disclosed.”