The education chair of the Florida House violated state law when she voted on the budget and a mortgage settlement in 2013 without disclosing a personal conflict, according to a measure approved Friday by the Florida Commission on Ethics.
Rep. Marlene O’Toole, R-Lady Lakes (which is part of the Villages), didn’t disclose her dual role as chief operating officer of a non-profit called “Take Stock in Children” and vice chair of the House education appropriations committee that approved $6 million for the Miami nonprofit in the 2013-14 budget.
Take Stock in Children was also awarded an additional $9.1 million from the state’s $200 million mortgage settlement. O’Toole voted on both matters, but in neither case did she disclose that she was paid $50,000 a year by the non-profit.
The order will be made official Wednesday, when it will then go to the House and Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island.
"The House hasn't received the case yet," said his spokesman, Michael Williams. "When it does, the Speaker will review it and make the decision he deems most appropriate."
Kerrie Stillman, a spokesman for the Commission on Ethics, said state law doesn't stipulate that the Commission can recommend penalties for legislators.
"It's totally up to the House," Stillman said regarding the possible penalties, if any, O'Toole could face.
Florida law doesn’t prohibit a state public officer from voting on a measure that inures to their special private gain but they are required to file a memorandum disclosing the nature of their interest in the measure as a public record filed no later than 15 days after the vote occurred.
O’Toole voted three times to approve the total House budget without filing a form to disclose the nature of her interest within 15 days of the vote.
It wasn’t until Aug. 29, 2013, more than two months after she was asked about the votes by the Times/Herald, did O’Toole disclose her conflict with Bob Ward, the clerk of the Florida House.
William Pruitt, who lives in Weirsdale, about three miles northeast of the Villages, filed the ethics complaint in January 2014 after reading about O’Toole’s conflict two months before in the Times/Herald.
Read ethics complaint.
“I waited because I thought someone would recognize that there was an issue here and file a complaint,” Pruitt said. “When no one did, I filed it. I hoped someone in her home county would have delved into it, but I think people are intimidated by the Villages out here. All the contractors work for them and they control all the politicians. People are scared to speak out.”
Pruitt is the former chair of the Early Learning Coalition of Lake County, a subsidized child care and pre-kindergarten non-profit.
“You shouldn’t use a children’s organization the way she did,” Pruitt said. “Don’t disgrace a program that takes care of children. What she did was dishonest.”
An investigation by Melody Hadley, an advocate for the Commission on Ethics, found that O’Toole was at least partially aware of her conflict.
“In Feb. 2011, O’Toole requested and received an opinion from House General Counsel concerning conflicts between her role as representative and her employment with Take Stock in Children. She was told that she didn’t have a conflict, but was placed on notice that if Take Stock in Children received a specific appropriation in the (budget), then that would likely be a special private gain to the principal by whom she is employed, thus indicating a possible voting conflict.”
Hadley said O’Toole said she didn’t file within 15 days because “she failed to read the portion of the opinion regarding the possible voting conflict and the suggestion that she annually file a disclosure letter with the House Clerk at the beginning of the legislative session which informs the public that she works and receives a salary from Take Stock in Children.”
Read Commission on Ethics recommendation
O’Toole couldn’t be reached Friday. On Feb. 10 she downplayed the ethics complaint as a “procedural issue” during a short interview with the the Times/Herald.
“I don’t want to talk about it until the Speaker and the people who give me the final word,” O’Toole said. She said she hasn’t discussed the case with Crisafulli.
“So stay tuned,” she said.