By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
In a blow to transparency, the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust is no longer posting its investigative reports online. And soon, the ethics commission will remove other public documents that have been available on its website for years.
As a result, the watchdog agency is taking a step backward in keeping the public abreast of its work investigating unethical misconduct and conflicts of interest in county and municipal governments.
Last year, the ethics commission abruptly stopped uploading the reports to its website after making them available in a downloadable PDF format for nearly 15 years. Usually less than 10 pages long, the reports provide brief summaries about closed cases, including descriptions of witness interviews and evidence collected during a probe. The reports also state whether a case became a formal complaint to the ethics commission, closed without taking any further action or was forwarded to the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office to conduct a possible criminal probe
At the top of the tab for “ethics investigations” is a statement that closed cases are no longer being published on the website, and the page instructs users to contact the ethics commission public records custodian to request viewing specific closed cases. There is no information about who the ethics commission investigated in 2020 and the first seven months of this year, but people can still view and download all the investigative reports released between 2005 and 2019.
In an email reply to a list of Florida Bulldog questions, Jose Arrojo, the Miami-Dade ethics commission’s executive director since 2018, said the decision to stop posting investigative reports online is part of a website makeover that has been in the works since 2019.
“The goal is to design a more modern, navigable, and user-friendly website that is geared to educating our client population and the general community,” Arrojo said. “The website is not intended to serve as the public records repository for the agency.”
Arrojo has predilection for secrecy. As a top assistant to Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, Arrojo participated in a scheme to falsify public records to protect informants that was later outlawed by a unanimous Florida Supreme Court in 2010. When the Miami-Herald uncovered the practice in 2006, Arrojo told a reporter that phonying up public records in informant cases was “an established practice in this circuit” for two decades.
Ethics commission deviates
The ethics commission’s move to pull down the investigative reports stands in stark contrast to other local and state watchdog agencies. The Miami-Dade Inspector General’s website was recently revamped, but the office continues to make its final investigative and audit reports readily available on its website under the tab “Releases & Reports.” The Office of the Broward Inspector General lets users browse through status reports, final reports and close-out memos by year.
Marie Perikles, deputy general counsel for the Miami-Dade Inspector General, said making final reports available online is done for transparency and to keep the public informed. “It is part of our job as a watchdog and oversight agency,” Perikles said. “If a report contains sensitive security information, those may not be posted or they would have to be heavily redacted. But the bulk of the public reports, we post.”
Typically, the Miami-Dade Inspector General simply sends the PDF files to the county’s information technology department once the reports are public, Perikles said. “We do have someone post it for us on our website,” she said. “It’s not a particularly cumbersome process.”
On a statewide level, the Florida Commission on Ethics uploads complaints, investigative reports, probable cause orders and other related documents when the board is ready to rule on specific cases during its monthly meetings. “The materials are posted on our website along with the agenda a couple of weeks prior to the commission meeting,” said Florida ethics commission spokeswoman Kerrie Stillman. “It’s been like that for years.”
Usually it takes one person to upload the documents, but sometimes it can take two people, Stillman added. “We don’t really keep track of how much time we spend putting it up,” she said. “But it does take time. It all depends on how voluminous the materials are.”
Arrojo: M-D ethics commission unique
Comparing the Miami-Dade ethics commission to the Florida ethics commission and the Miami-Dade Inspector General is not entirely valid, Arrojo said. “I don’t believe that agency has the authority to self-initiate ethics investigations and may only investigate upon the filing of a formal complaint,” Arrojo said. “Thus, like the Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics, that agency’s website likely references ethics investigations that are conducted in support of formal complaints.”
Arrojo noted that Miami-Dade residents can still find case briefs about formal complaints on the website, which provides a synopsis of the allegations against a public official, whether the individual agreed to pay a fine and the ethics commission’s final disposition.
With regard to the Miami-Dade Inspector General, Arrojo suggested the ethics commission has a bigger workload. “Because their public charge is different from ours, they report between half a dozen and a dozen investigations per year,” Arrojo said. “Their numbers are far lower than ours in this regard because their charge is different and they are focused on waste and mismanagement matters.”
Not posting the investigative reports online was a staff decision that was “discussed, approved and encouraged” by then-ethics commission chairman Jeffrey Cutler in 2019 before he died the same year, Arrojo said. He added the ethics commission could also scrub more public documents from its website.
“As part of this process, I expect that we may cease to upload certain categories of data and also, very dated source data may also be removed,” Arrojo said. “It is likely that very dated ethics opinions from staff in response to informal inquiries may also become unavailable on the website as we go forward.”
Anyone can still request a listing of closed ethics investigations since 2020 and investigative files, Arrojo said.
Virginia Hamrick, staff attorney for the Florida First Amendment Foundation, told Florida Bulldog that the state’s Sunshine Law, one of the most progressive open records laws in the country, does not require the Miami-Dade ethics commission to post documents online.
“While it is not a violation, it does make it harder to access information that was once readily available,” Hamrick said. “It’s probably been a great resource for the public.”
David Winker, a Miami attorney who has represented individuals and organizations making complaints with the ethics commission, said the website is becoming a blackhole. “It’s just a huge step backwards from a transparency standpoint,” Winker said. “It’s like they are making investigations disappear. In order to ask for documentation, you have to know an investigation happened or who the complaint was against. I can’t think what the justification is.”