State Ethics Commission finds ‘probable cause’ Sheriff Tony abused his position

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By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org

The Florida Ethics Commission today found probable cause to believe Broward Sheriff Gregory Tony provided false information about himself to Governor Ron DeSantis before the governor appointed him sheriff in January 2019.

Specifically, Tony failed to mention his “history of drug use and a homicide arrest,” the commission said.

The commission’s broad finding of seemingly serious wrongdoing on Tony’s part is a potentially devastating blow to his career as a sheriff. Governor Ron DeSantis, who nominated Tony in 2019 while refusing to wait for the results of a full background check, reportedly considered removing and replacing him.

Florida bulldog first reported on May 2, 2020 that when Tony was 14 and living in a poor neighborhood in Philadelphia, he shot and killed a young man named Hector Rodriguez. Tony was charged with murder, but was later acquitted in a trial in juvenile court. All court records of the case are sealed or have been expunged.

Tony said he killed Rodriguez in self-defense. Rodriguez’s girlfriend at the time disputed this account, saying Rodriguez was unarmed and the shooting was sparked by an argument.

OTHER APPARENT VIOLATIONS

The Tallahassee Police Department rejected Tony for an officer position in 2004 after he admitted to using LSD once. Later, he hid this fact.

The commission also found probable grounds to believe that Tony violated Florida Statute 112.313(6) in several other instances:

  • During the hiring process, when he became a Coral Springs police officer, he did not disclose information “regarding his traffic citation history, his drug use history, his arrest history and whether he had ever applied for a law enforcement position” in Tallahassee.
  • While serving as sheriff, he completed, signed, and had a Florida Department of Law Enforcement certification form notarized stating that he had never had a criminal record sealed or expunged.
  • While serving as a sheriff in February 2019, and also as a police officer in October 2005, August 2007, and December 2013, he falsely stated in applications to renew or replace his driver’s license that his driving privileges had never been revoked, suspended or denied in any state. But Pennsylvania had suspended Tony’s license several times.

The Probable Cause Order, signed today by Chairman John Grant, was unusually strong for a commission that has long had a reputation as a weak sister. He specifically rejected recommendations from Commission Counsel – and Assistant Attorney General – Melody Hadley to let Tony walk. Hadley had recommended in an 11-page report that the commission find no probable cause against Tony.

“The commission rejected his attorney’s recommendation and found probable cause to believe that Broward County Sheriff Gregory Tony abused his public position,” a press release from the commission read.

At the commission’s closed hearing last week, Commissioner Willie Meggs, a former Leon County prosecutor, expressed bewilderment at Hadley’s recommendation and supported Commissioner Michelle Anchors of Fort Walton Beach.

“It’s beyond my mind that we’re here as an ethics commission and we have someone who has essentially committed criminal acts by omitting and committing perjury in an app and we can’t find a ethics violation?… I don’t understand,” Meggs said.

Anchors later called Tony’s behavior “despicable”, but was nonetheless the only vote against finding probable cause. The nine-member commission voted 8-1 against Tony.

TONY ‘DISAPPOINTED’

Tony was represented at last week’s closed hearing by Tallahassee attorney Steven G. Webster, who issued this statement: “The Florida Commission on Ethics Advocate’s report made it clear that no violation had taken place and recommended that the Commission find no probable cause. The Commission’s disregard for its own counsel’s findings and recommendation is unprecedented.

“Although disappointed with the Commission’s action, my client looks forward to a speedy finding of innocence,” Webster said.

The ruling, finding gross misconduct on Tony’s part, is even stronger than the June findings of the state’s Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission, which has the power to revoke Tony’s his police officer’s license. The CJSTC simply found probable cause why Tony repeatedly lied about his past driving record to obtain Florida driver’s licenses.

The findings of the ethics commission would appear to pave the way for Governor DeSantis to remove Tony if he chooses. Florida bulldog reported in late August that, by law, DeSantis had acquired the authority to replace Tony once Tony had less than 28 months to serve in his four-year term. This date was adopted on September 6.

At the end of last week’s hearing, Commission Chairman Grant urged Webster and Tony to begin discussions with commission staff about settling the case. If not, the case will now head to trial before a Division of Administrative Hearings (DOAH) judge.

“A trial with all the evidence coming out and…news articles on a daily or hourly basis would be something a sitting sheriff would want to avoid if possible. That would be a punishment in itself,” said Commissioner Don Gaetz, former chairman of the state Senate.

The ethics commission case began after the Florida Department of Law Enforcement filed its 20-page report on Tony, completed in July 2021. FDLE had recommended that Tony be charged with criminal perjury, but prosecutors in Fort Myers overseeing the case refused.

The Ethics Commission conducted its own preliminary investigation and the matter was assigned to Hadley for review and recommendation to the commission.

At last week’s closed hearing, Tony’s lawyer was allowed to make a presentation. A tape recording of the meeting showed that attorney Webster mostly relied on and agreed with Hadley’s recommendations that no probable cause should be found.

It is not known if Tony was present.

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