TALLAHASSEE — After four years of back and forth, the Commission on Ethics has ruled former North Port attorney Robert Robinson acted unethically when he worked for the city.
The commission found Robinson had a misuse of public position, which is a violation of Florida state statute. On July 28 the commission recommended Governor Rick Scott fine Robinson $5,000 and publicly censure and reprimand him.
What initially started as a complaint in 2014 from North Port property owner Conni Brunni snowballed into an investigation from the commission.
Brunni, who had moved to the area from California, began watching North Port City Commission meetings online. When she realized some of the actions Robinson took seemed unethical, she began transcribing some of the meetings by hand to ensure she understood what was happening.
“I thought, ‘Am I seeing this? It can’t be,’” Brunni said. “I went back and transcribed some of the meetings; I have these pages of notes in my own handwriting. So I read it all and thought, ‘This is way worse than I even thought initially. This is so bad it needs to be exposed.’”
Robinson had required the commission to make an appointment of a Zoning Hearing Officer. He also encouraged commissioners to amend the city code, replacing the Code Enforcement Board with a Code Enforcement Special Magistrate.
He recommended the commission consider him for both of the positions. Robinson declined to comment.
Brunni initially warned the commission she would file a complaint with the Commission on Ethics and the Florida Bar Association if they continued with Robinson’s plan. When they proceeded, she filed a complaint on Oct. 10, 2014.
“At the time and throughout the time Mr. Robinson essentially laughed at me,” she said. “I’m a pipsqueak, I’m a nobody, I get it — but I’m a person who can read and who cares.”
On Sept. 16, 2015, the commission found probable cause to believe Robinson had violated Florida state statute. On April 26, 2017, the commission gave a final order recommending Robinson pay $10,000 – $5,000 for each violation of state statute. Robinson appealed that decision on May 25, 2017.
During commission proceedings, Elizabeth Miller, advocate for the Attorney General’s Office, told commissioners Robinson’s “deceptiveness” included drafting a contract for himself and his law firm, where he increased his hourly rates and then refused to negotiate with the City Commission.
She added he was “using knowledge and resources to create an unfair advantage for himself and for his personal benefit,” according to a Commission on Ethics report.
“He will not take any care to avoid unethical conduct in the future,” the report states Miller said. “(Miller) asserts (Robinson) has not accepted responsibility and accountability for his actions nor has he identified his conduct as inappropriate.”
She added she believed a $5,000 fine is consistent with the law, along with public censure and reprimand. That final decision was order on July 28, 2018.
The four years of court proceedings were not unusual due to Robinson consistently challenging the decisions made, according to Ethics Commission lawyer Caroline Klacke.
“When you have someone who availed themselves of all aspects of our process, it’s not unusual (to take this long),” Klacke said.
She originally signed the order to investigate into the case. She added the case is essentially closed, unless he appealed the penalty.
Scott was sent a letter detailing the penalty but has not taken action as of yet.
Brunni also filed a complaint with the Florida Bar Association, who said they would wait to proceed until the complaint with the Ethics Commission. An official with the official stated as of Monday afternoon the association has not yet proceeded with the process.
Robinson is currently a lawyer at Kirk Pinkerton law firm in Sarasota.
“I’m going to keep an eye on it and call out something when I see it,” Brunni said regarding what she believes to be injustice in the community. “This isn’t an isolated incident; I have no intention of going away.”