No charges against Sarasota commissioner after no evidence Arroyo “willfully” broke law

Prosecutors decided not to file charges against Sarasota City Commissioner Erik Arroyo after an investigation involving his failure to register a charity before accepting contributions for the nonprofit, according to a memo detailing the decision.

State officials from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement appear to have examined whether Arroyo violated state law when he took donations for the Sarasota City Foundation he co-founded without obtaining a solicitation of donation approval from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Florida law requires charities to file annually with the department, which Arroyo did not do until June 5, several weeks after the inquiry began.

However, state law requires a person to “willfully” do so for a crime to have been committed.

“There is no evidence to prove that Erik Arroyo willfully committed a crime,” the memo from the State Attorney’s Office for the 20th Judicial Circuit stated. “The evidence shows that Erik Arroyo has now properly registered the charity with FDACS (Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.)”

Arroyo, reached on Wednesday, declined a full interview on the report, expressing concern that something he said to a reporter could theoretically be used to re-open the investigation.

“Frankly, I didn’t spend enough time on the particulars of setting up the foundation and clearly made some technical errors, but as the findings of the investigation state, there was no willful misconduct,” he said.

He also reaffirmed previous statements he made about his misgivings around how the investigation began.

“The bigger problem is not with the charitable foundation we created for a good cause, it’s these paid attorney-lobbyists shopping frivolous criminal charges simply to advance their political objectives,” he said.

The State Attorney’s Office decision came about four months after Sarasota Police handed off an investigation to state investigators that was prompted by a meeting between a developer and a Sarasota Planning Board member that reportedly included a job offer to the board member.

City police launched their investigation in April after Planning Board member Michael Halflants told a deputy city attorney about a meeting with a silent partner in the proposed One Park Sarasota luxury condo development in The Quay on the Sarasota bayfront. Halflants was consulting the city attorney on whether he would be required to recuse himself in an upcoming vote involving the condo project because of the meeting with Jim Bridges.

That police investigation prompted the city to cancel a public hearing before the Planning Board on the One Park Sarasota development, a reported $600 million condo project that has remained stalled as the investigation continued.

FDLE probe ends without charges

An investigative report from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement shows the inquiry determined early on “the allegation against the Planning Board member was unsubstantiated,” with the focus of the investigation shifting to the private charity Arroyo created with two other Sarasota residents in late 2021, the Sarasota City Foundation.

A law firm representing the Ritz-Carlton Residences condo board, which is in litigation with the developers of One Park and has opposed parts of the One Park development proposal, forwarded several allegations of “improper influence” to the State Attorney’s Office and FDLE investigators.

Some of those allegations centered on an event hosted by the Sarasota City Foundation called the Mayor’s Ball.

Mayor Erik Arroyo delivers his State of the City speech during the Sarasota City Commission meeting at City Hall on Monday, Nov. 14, 2022.

Mayor Erik Arroyo delivers his State of the City speech during the Sarasota City Commission meeting at City Hall on Monday, Nov. 14, 2022.

That $200-per-person event was organized as a fundraiser. Ashley Gaillard, an attorney and former prosecutor now with Bentley Goodrich Kison representing the Ritz-Carlton Residences condo board, raised questions about the attendees and the possibility some of the people who donated to the Sarasota City Foundation would have projects requiring City Commission approval.

The FDLE investigative report included one interview with a One Park investor who also donated $10,000 to the Sarasota City Foundation, Kim Githler, a Sarasota philanthropist, developer and business owner, who said that, while she donated to the charity, she did not expect Arroyo to provide anything in return for the donation.

Investigators also interviewed Bridges, also a minority partner in One Park Sarasota. He told investigators he did not donate to the Sarasota City Foundation, but had donated to Arroyo in the past when he ran for political office. The investigative report said the interview with Bridges lasted a total of five minutes. Bridges had previously told the Herald-Tribune he had offered a job to Halflants on a project unrelated to One Park Sarasota.

Cathy Antunes, a community activist, brought up the Sarasota City Foundation in November 2022 during the public comment part of a city meeting after Arroyo had announced the Mayor’s Ball raised $130,000.

The amount raised was actually about $70,000, according to the FDLE investigative report, an overestimation Arroyo attributed to miscommunication.

Antunes took issue with the idea of a foundation using the city’s name and the title of mayor, combined with the fact that Arroyo had indicated he planned to donate gift cards to police officers and teachers.

She said Arroyo’s response at the meeting and in subsequent attempt to gain clarity on the Sarasota City Foundation did not meet her expectation of a city commissioner, especially given that the foundation was originally created using the city’s address.

“Just because there’s no crime does not mean there was no problem,” Antunes said.

This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: After four months, FDLE inquiry at Sarasota City Hall is closed

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