Trump allies file ethics complaint against Governor DeSantis

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Allies of former President Donald Trump have filed a complaint with the Florida Ethics Commission blaming Gov. Ron DeSantisleading potential primary challenger in 2024, for violating campaign finance and ethics rules with a “shadow” bid for the White House.

The 15-page complaint filed Wednesday by MAGA Inc., a pro-Trump super PAC, and shared with The Associated Press, asks the committee to investigate the Florida Republican leader for allegedly “using his elected office and violating its duties in a coordinated development effort on his national profile, enriches himself and his political allies and influences the national electorate.”

It said DeSantis is “now the de facto candidate for president of the United States,” citing the governor’s meetings with donors, his outreach to potential staff allies and his courting of influential Republicans in early voting states, among other efforts. The complaint asks the nine-member commission — five of whose members were appointed by DeSantis — to punish the governor by removing him from office, publicly reprimanding him or fining him.

DeSantis communications director Taryn Fenske denied the allegations and questioned the grounds for the complaint. “Adding this to the list of frivolous and politically motivated attacks. It is inappropriate to use complaints about government ethics for partisan purposes,” she said in a statement.

Ken Cuccinelli, a former Trump homeland security official who recently created a political action committee supporting DeSantis’ potential bidaccused Trump’s allies of playing “power games.”

“I am shocked but not surprised,” he said in a statement. “During my tenure as Virginia attorney general, I’ve seen complaints all the time, and I can tell when the spaghetti is just being thrown against the wall.”

The letter, which was first reported by NBC News, comes as Trump has stepped up his criticism of DeSantis, whom the former president’s campaign sees as his top challenger for the 2024 Republican nomination. Trump has tried to play down DeSantis by nicknames and focused on the governor’s past policy positions, including Florida’s early restrictions on COVID-19 and his votes on Social Security while a member of Congress.

Trump himself faced similar criticism before announcing his own candidacy in Novemberaccused of violating federal campaign laws by raising and spending campaign money before the official campaign launch in 2024. He has never been reprimanded or fined as a result.

Although DeSantis has yet to officially announce a 2024 campaign, he is widely expected to do so after the Florida legislative session ends in May. Meanwhile, he traveled to early voting states to promote his new book and meet with donors. His team also held informal talks with future campaign headquarters.

Ethics Commission spokeswoman Lynn Blaze said the agency is not allowed to acknowledge any complaints it receives until the complaint reaches a point where it can be made public.

In addition to the five committee members appointed by DeSantis, the other four were appointed by the Senate president and the speaker of the House — both allies of the governor.

Complaints often don’t see the light of day unless they are released by the people who file them. The Commission does not make complaints or materials public until they have been dismissed or probable cause has been established to protect the privacy of its subjects.

If the commission finds that the complaint has merit, it can impose a fine or reprimand, but it cannot remove an elected official from office. He could recommend the governor remove an elected official for violating ethics laws, but that would require Desantis to take action against himself if a violation is found.

The process is often used by campaigns to raise questions about opponents by making complaints public, though many are allowed or dismissed without the commission finding wrongdoing. In Florida, it is illegal to file a complaint with malicious intent and false statements. The commission may fine violators, who may also be ordered to pay the defendant’s attorney’s fees.

Florida GOP Chairman Christian Ziegler, who is slated to remain neutral in the primary, declined to comment on the complaint but said he was glad DeSantis was traveling the country touting his success in Florida.

“We’re killing it in Florida,” he said. “There is great value in the governor being involved in sharing Florida’s plan with other states. It will make the country better, but it will also help attract more freedom-loving citizens and businesses to our state.”


Colvin reported from New York. AP National Political Writer Steve Peoples in New York contributed to this report.

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