Trump allies file ethics complaint against Gov. DeSantis

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FILE - President Donald Trump talks to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, during a visit to Lake Okeechobee and Herbert Hoover Dike at Canal Point, Fla., March 29, 2019. Allies of former President Donald Trump have filed a complaint with the Florida Commission on Ethics accusing the states governor, Ron DeSantis, of violating campaign finance and ethics rules by running a shadow campaign for president. The complaint was filed Wednesday by MAGA, Inc. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Allies of former President Donald Trump have filed a complaint with the Florida Commission on Ethics accusing Gov. Ron DeSantis, a leading potential 2024 primary rival, of violating campaign finance and ethics rules with a “shadow” run for the White House.

The 15-page complaint filed Wednesday by MAGA Inc., a Trump-supporting super PAC, and shared with The Associated Press, asks the commission to investigate Florida's Republican leader for allegedly “leveraging his elected office and breaching his associated duties in a coordinated effort to develop his national profile, enrich himself and his political allies, and influence the national electorate."

It says DeSantis is “already a de facto candidate for President of the United States,” citing the governor's meetings with donors, outreach by allies to potential staff 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 having him suspended from office, publicly censured or fined.

DeSantis communications director Taryn Fenske dismissed the accusations and questioned the motives of the complaint. “Adding this to the list of frivolous and politically motivated attacks. It’s inappropriate to use state ethics complaints for partisan purposes," she said in a statement.

Ken Cuccinelli, the former Trump Homeland Security official who recently launched a political action committee supporting DeSantis’ potential run, accused Trump allies of playing “establishment games.”

“I’m shocked, but not surprised," he said in a statement. “During my tenure as Attorney General of Virginia, I saw complaints all the time and I can tell when spaghetti is just thrown at the wall.”

The letter, which was first reported by NBC News, comes as Trump has stepped up his criticism of DeSantis, whom the ex-president's campaign sees as his most serious rival for the 2024 GOP nomination. Trump has tried to belittle DeSantis with nicknames and has focused on the governor's past policy positions, including Florida’s early COVID-19 restrictions and his votes on Social Security while he was a member of Congress.

Trump himself faced similar criticism before announcing his own candidacy in November, accused of violating federal campaign laws by raising and spending money for a run ahead of a formal 2024 campaign launch. He was never reprimanded or fined as a result.

While DeSantis has not yet formally announced a 2024 campaign, he is widely expected to do so after Florida's legislative session ends in May. In the meantime, he has traveled to early-voting states to promote his new book and has met with donors. His team has also held informal conversations with prospective campaign staff.

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

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

Complaints often don’t see the light of day unless they are released by the people filing them. The commission does not make complaints or material public until they are dismissed or probable cause determined, in order to protect the privacy of their subjects.

If the commission finds the complaint is valid, it could issue a fine or a reprimand, but cannot remove an elected official from office. It could recommend that the governor suspend an elected official for violating ethics laws, but that would require DeSantis to take action against himself if a violation were found.

The process is often used by campaigns to raise questions about opponents by making complaints public, although many are resolved or dismissed without the commission finding violations. It is illegal in Florida to file a complaint with malicious intent and false claims. The commission can fine violators, who can also be ordered to pay a defendant's legal fees.

Republican Party of Florida Chairman Christian Ziegler, who must remain neutral in a primary, declined to comment on the complaint, but said he’s glad DeSantis is traveling the country promoting his success in Florida.

“We’re killing it in Florida,” he said. “There’s great value to having the governor on the road sharing the Florida blueprint with other states. It’s going to make the country better, but it’s also going to help bring in more pro-freedom residents and businesses to our state.”

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