Tamarac Mayor’s Bribery Case May be Considered by the Florida Supreme Court

By Scott Kalish

Recently filed at the Supreme Court is an appeal that may address Florida’s anti-bribery laws. The parties have so far filed briefs on jurisdiction. Flansbaum-Talabisco v. State (SC13-1988).

In 2011, the State of Florida charged Mayor Talabisco of Tamarac with unlawful compensation, bribery, official misconduct and conspiracy to commit unlawful compensation for certain contributions made to her election campaign by a development company that were in the form of a poll (worth $7,000) and campaign mailers (worth $19,000). The state alleged that the Mayor accepted these contributions as a condition for her affirmative vote on a controversial development project.

The trial court granted the mayor’s motion to dismiss and dismissed all charges against her based on the finding that “the undisputed facts do not establish a prima facie case of guilt against the Defendant as to the crime charged in the Information.” On appeal the Fourth District Court of Appeals addressed the issue of whether the state’s complaint was properly dismissed. The District Court concluded that the state did establish as a prima facie case against Mayor Talabisco and remanded the case with directions to reinstate the charges. Florida v. Flansbaum-Talabisco (4D12-946).

The Fourth DCA addressed the mayor’s two principal arguments for why the state had not alleged a prima facie case. First, Mayor Talabisco asserted that she had not received a “benefit” as required by all four of her charges. Second, Mayor Talabisco argued that the benefits that she received were lawful and not within the scope of the anti-corruption statute.

The District Court cited the definition of “benefit” in section 838.014(1), Florida Statutes, which applies to the criminal anti-bribery statute, and concluded that the definition is “quite broad.” The Court reasoned that the term benefit encompassed more than just an economic benefit that flows directly into the recipient’s hands. The Court cited Bauer v. State, 609 So. 2d 608 (Fla. 4th DCA 1992) (holding that defendant’s “avoidance of punishment is a benefit for purposes of official misconduct.”). The Court therefore concluded that chapter 838’s definition of “benefit” included the campaign assistance she received from the development company.

Next, the DCA addressed Mayor Talabisco’s argument that the contributions she received were not in fact unlawful under the anti-corruption statutes because she had not accepted the contributions in exchange for her vote for the development project. The charges brought against her, namely bribery and unlawful compensation, alleged receipt of a “benefit not authorized by law.” Talabisco argued that the contributions she received were not unlawful within the meaning of the statutes outside of the bribery context, and therefore had no application in the case. The District Court rejected the mayor’s argument, and reasoned that the application of the mayor’s interpretation of the text would produce absurd results by legalizing all manner of quid pro quo benefits granted to public officials that have been long established to constitute bribery.

The District Court concluded that the issue of whether the mayor had actually accepted the contributions for her vote on the project was a question of intent and appropriate for the fact-finder to determine.

Mayor Talabisco petitioned the Supreme Court of Florida for discretionary review of the Fourth DCA’s decision. Talabisco first argued that the Court should grant jurisdiction under Rule 9.030(a)(2)(i), Fla.R.App.P., because the Fourth District declared the anti-corruption statutes valid as applied to her and under Rule 9.030(a)(2)(iii), Fla.R.App.P., as the mayor argues that she falls within a class of constitutional or state officers affected by the decision of the DCA.

The state responded that the Supreme Court should not exercise jurisdiction because the mayor’s appeal to the Fourth District did not raise any contention on the validity of the statutes; rather she disputed the sufficiency of the state’s evidence. The state also disputed Mayor Talabisco’s second jurisdictional argument by asserting that a mayor is not a constitutional or state officer, and in any case, the decision of the DCA did not focus on the duties or powers of Talabisco’s office. See Estes v. City of North Miami Beach, 227 So. 2d 33, 34 (Fla. 1969); Spradley v. State, 293 So.2d 697 (Fla. 1974).

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