TALLAHASSEE –– Donald Trump's political contribution to Florida's elected attorney general created at least the appearance of bias and impropriety. This is a danger faced by all elected legal officials, a Miami attorney said during a recent interview.
"We have a political system built on elections, not appointments," Dorothy Easley of the law firm Easley Appellate Practice said in an email interview with the Florida Record. "Those running for office need money to fuel those campaigns, obviously. They will continue to receive campaign contributions. And the sheer amount of money being funneled into campaigns today, both from within and outside the United States, is huge.
"For these reasons – the uncertainty over the impact of money, the reality that those running for elected office have to fuel their campaigns, which means accepting campaign contributions, and a system in which those feeling the greatest need to influence outcomes – campaign contributions are serious problem at the same time that they are a permanent reality at least for the near future."
Easley is author of "The Persistent Legislative, Executive, and Corporate Attempts to Control the Judiciary."
In the fall of 2013, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi received a $25,000 donation from now presidential hopeful Donald Trump at about the time the office considered joining an investigation into alleged fraud at Trump University, the Associated Press reported earlier this month.
Bondi is two years into her second term as attorney general, having won election in 2010 and 2014, both times winning by wide margins over her opponents.
The donation arrived from a Trump family foundation in the form of a check received by the group And Justice for All, which supports Bondi's re-election, on Sept. 17, 2013. After the check arrived, the attorney general's office decided not to join a New York state probe into Trump University's activities, according to the AP report.
The attorney general's office has refused most requests for comment, including those from the Florida Record. However, Bondi and a spokesman in her office told CNN that the office decided New York's litigation was enough without Florida joining and that Trump's donation did not influence that decision.
Bondi has endorsed Trump's bid for president.
If nothing else, the controversy around Trump's donation to Bondi is an example of the balance elected legal official must strike to do their job and still raise funds for their campaigns, Easley said.
"It is a challenging balance because, on the one hand, they are elected and beholden to those who elected them, with one notable and unique situation," Easley said. "Elected judges are judicial officers, while elected in the county and circuit courts – appointed in the appellate and Florida Supreme Court levels – take an oath to follow the law as their guide and to, in plain, and perhaps oversimplified, terms, remain loyal to the law, not loyal to those who elected them."
However, Florida has established rules for public officials and the standards that they should follow, Easley said.
"Florida has actually worked to lead among the states in establishing ethics standards for public officials and protecting the public's trust against abuse," she said. "The Florida Constitution was revised in 1968 to require a code of ethics for all state employees and non-judicial officers, non-judges, which are governed by their own strict codes, that prohibits conflicts between duties to the public and private interests."
Florida adopted the Sunshine Amendment of 1976 that provided additional constitutional guarantees concerning ethics in government, Easley said. There also is a Code of Ethics for Public Officers and Employees in Florida's Statutes designed to ensure that public officials conduct themselves independent of those who provide campaign contributions and other support, she said.
Easley declined to comment about what Bondi should have been more aware of to avoid at least the appearance of bias.
"I am not qualified to opine on what someone should or should not be thinking," Easley said. "What I can say is that, above all else, Attorney General Bondi is an attorney fully versed in the law, is expected to know the law, and is entrusted to know the law as the state's attorney general. She is also well-aware of the concepts of appearance of impropriety and of bias both by her training as an attorney and as an attorney general holding public office. Meaning, although there may be no actual impropriety or bias, public officials and judicial officers are well-aware of and sensitive to the reality that the public may perceive there to be bias and impropriety and that we have to guard against those perceptions."