Commissioner Kiker Cleared: Ethics Commission Finds No Wrongdoing

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The Florida Commission on Ethics on Wednesday, March 15, dismissed allegations against Larry Kiker, District 3 Lee County Commissioner and former Mayor of Fort Myers Beach. The League of Women Voters of Lee County, Florida filed the complaint against Commissioner Kiker in February 2016, during his reelection campaign, stating that he misused his office for financial gain in conjunction with the proposed Grand Resort – Fort Myers Beach proposed redevelopment by TPI Hospitality for the island’s downtown area.

In its release, the Ethics Commission wrote that it “found no probable cause to believe Larry Kiker solicited or accepted a broker’s commission for the sale of property based on an understanding that his vote, official action, or judgment would be influenced. Similarly, an allegation that he accepted the commission when he knew or should have known that it was provided to influence his vote or other official action was dismissed with a finding of no probable cause. An allegation that he misused his position to benefit himself or someone else with respect to the sale of the property also was dismissed, and the Commissioner found no probable cause to believe that his contractual relationship with the real estate company created a frequently recurring conflict or impeded the full and faithful discharge of his public duties. While Mr. Kiker has an obligation to record lobbyist contacts, and his failure to do so was inconsistent with the proper performance of public duties, he did not act corruptly in failing to record the lobbyist contacts.”

Commissioner Kiker and his wife, Paula, are managing members of FMB SUN, LLC operating Lahaina Reality on Fort Myers Beach. TPI Hospitality purchased a downtown property that was represented on the seller’s side by Lahaina Realty. The Kikers provided bank records documenting the transaction and the amount paid to the agent.

Commissioner Kiker Response

In response to the Ethics Commission dismissing the League suit, Commissioner Kiker said in a prepared statement: “I am pleased to share this good news with you. The Florida Ethics Commission has found no probable cause related to the fabricated, exaggerated claims made against me. Though I believe the complaint was filed to further a politically-motivated agenda during an election cycle, I fully respect the thorough process by which the Commission reached its conclusion, and I thank the members for their service to the state.”

His statement continued, saying “being an elected official is a privilege that requires a great responsibility. I take this very seriously. I am pleased this process is in the rearview mirror so I can continue working alongside my four esteemed colleagues as we focus on the future and the important issues facing the citizens of Lee County. Thank you for your continued support.”

When reached by The Island Sand Paper in March 2016, Commissioner Kiker stated that while he “was surprised by The League of Women Voters complaint, it happens.” When asked by the dismissal of the complaint on March 21, the Commissioner said, “I am going to let my statement stand, as it says everything I want to say. I have no desire to restart this, or stir anything up, and I look forward to continuing my service to the citizens of Lee County.”

In its response, the League stated that it “wonders exactly what is meant by ‘corruptly.’ The confidence of voters in the democratic electoral process hinges on officials avoiding impropriety or the appearance of impropriety.”

The Complaint

The issue ignited in late January 2016, when Commissioner Kiker’s lobby logs revealed significant omissions, including several that may have pertained to the Grand Resorts – Fort Myers Beach proposal. These led The League to file its claim with the Ethics Commission on February 12, 2016, declaring that “Mr. Kiker, this past year, left numerous discussion topics blank and did not record that discussions had occurred for about 30 instances.” The League alleged that the gaps raised questions concerning a perhaps too-cozy relationship with TPI Hospitality, resulting in its complaint.

Lee County Ordinance #2003-14 defines lobbying and lobbyist reporting duties. Section #2 says “’lobbying’ means communication outside of a duly noted public meeting or hearing on the record, whether written or oral by a lobbyist, with any member or members of the Board of County Commissioners . . . whereby the lobbyist seeks to encourage or influence the passage, defeat, modification, or repeal of any item which may be presented for vote before the Board of County Commissioners.” Section #3 states that “County Commissioners . . . shall be responsible for maintaining a written log which documents each oral lobbying communication or meeting with a lobbyist whether paid or unpaid, held for the purpose of lobbying outside a duly noticed public meeting or hearing on the record.”

A review of lobby logs in February 2016 found that while his four Commissioner colleagues maintained near-perfect logs, combined for just 5 errors over the previous 12 months, Commissioner Kiker had roughly 30 lapses, several prominently concerning Grand Resorts – Fort Myers Beach. Any development, prior to implementation, requires Lee County as well as local, state and federal approval. Commissioner Kiker did not record the discussion topics or results for the entries in question. He explained at the time that the errors were from lack of staff training of a new assistant, administrative confusion and differing legal interpretations, but that the final responsibility was his and he would correct the situation.

Mold In a Closet

Should TPI Hospitality submit a Downtown Fort Myers Beach development proposal to Lee County, some feel the log issue means he should recuse himself from those decisions. The League stated at the time of their complaint that “decision-making in the dark is like mold growing in a closet; eventually it will make us sick without knowing it. Commissioner Kiker, by his actions, has forfeited the right to vote on these matters.”

Grand Resorts made four public presentations in early 2016, seeking input on its initial plan that included three multi-story hotels, a parking garage, traffic rotary at the base of the Matanzas Pass Bridge and a coastal protection system. After some residents reacted angrily, including electing two Council members who vigorously campaigned against it, TPI Hospitality never submitted a project application for their initial concept. Since then, it has crafted two more scaled-down proposals, attempting to submit one in November 2016 that was not accepted by the Town of Fort Myers Beach as it did not include County approval to include the Seafarer’s parcel in the development. Lee County Commissioners have declined to consider the inclusion of the Seafarer’s property in the downtown development citing their need to use it as a staging area for Estero Blvd. construction. The latest TPI application is tentatively set for submission later this month.

The Florida Commission on Ethics is an independent nine-member board formed in 1974 to review complaints filed under the statutory Code of Ethics and to answer questions from public officials about potential conflicts of interest. Had the Commission determined that Commissioner Kiker committed a violation, it could have recommended civil penalties that include removal from office, fines up to $10,000 per violation, or up to 60 days in jail, with the League advocating the maximum monetary penalty should it rule against him.

The League of Women Voters of Lee County formed in 1949 to encourage citizen involvement in government, and does not endorse or oppose candidates. Before proceeding with its ethics complaint, its membership voted to determine a consensus, falling just one ballot shy of unanimous.

Larry Kiker was elected to the Town of Fort Myers Beach Council in March 2007 and served one year as vice mayor before becoming mayor. He remained in that capacity until 2012 and his election to the Lee County Board of Commissioners for District 3. In August 2016, he won reelection, defeating Dick Anderson by slightly over 1,000 votes. To review all lobbyist logs, see the Lee County Clerk of Courts website at www.leeclerk.org.

 

Gary Mooney