Ethics complaint: Controversial chairman John Miklos conceals conflicts on water board
John Miklos, controversial chairman of the St. Johns River Water Management District, and two other board members have had their appointments to the board rescinded as part of a sweeping move Gov. Ron DeSantis took to halt dozens of appointments by former Gov. Rick Scott that haven’t yet been confirmed by the state Senate.
The move comes a little more than a week after DeSantis was notified of a new ethics complaint filed against Miklos, and two days after The News-Journal asked the governor’s office for comment about that complaint.
The complaint filed with the Florida Commission on Ethics on Feb. 7 — a 15-page letter by Kimberly Buchheit, an Apopka surveyor — is not the first time Miklos has come under scrutiny.
It’s the second ethics complaint in three years questioning conflicts that occur because Miklos serves as the district’s board chairman and president of Bio-Tech Consulting, an environmental consulting firm that represents dozens of clients across Florida who seek permits from the water district.
Buchheit’s complaint revealed new information, stating Miklos displays “a pattern of concealing ‘conflicts’ which appear to have been completed in a deliberate purposeful manner.”
While combing through months of board meeting agendas and minutes, Buchheit found that at least five times in two years, Miklos handed off the gavel and ducked out of meetings just before projects his company worked on as consultants were scheduled for a vote on the consent agenda. In four of the cases he returned, within a couple of minutes after the vote.
Those undisclosed conflicts are in addition to the eight conflicts he publicly disclosed over the same period, Buchheit’s complaint states. She also questions why Miklos hasn’t been filling out a quarterly client disclosure form required by state law for officials who represent clients before their agencies.
Buchheit sent a letter, and a copy of the complaint, to the governor on Feb. 12.
March 2010: John Miklos appointed to St. Johns River Water Management District Governing Board by Gov. Charlie Crist.
November 2013: Miklos elected chairman of water management district.
November 2014: Miklos re-elected chairman, after being reappointed by Gov. Rick Scott.
Early May 2015: Miklos involved in effort to oust five senior staff members.
Late May 2015: DeBary engineer tells city staff changes at water district might allow city to use land at Gemini Springs.
November 2015: Miklos re-elected chairman.
April 2016: DeBary approves contract with its engineer to hire Bio-Tech and Miklos as subcontractor to investigate using land at Gemini Springs.
May 2016: Don Mair files ethics complaint against Miklos for his role in DeBary land deal.
May 2016: Former district board member said businesses hire Miklos to get extra influence.
June 2016: DeBary abandons plans to use land at Gemini Springs.
November 2016: Miklos re-elected chairman.
December 2016: Florida Commission on Ethics clears Miklos, votes not to pursue investigation of Miklos’ ethics in DeBary case.
November 2017: Miklos re-elected chairman.
December 2017: Bio-Tech client Consolidated-Tomoka fined for working without permit.
February 2018: Bio-Tech client at Orlando Airport caught working without permit.
April 2018: Bio-Tech client Geosam caught clearing land without permit in New Smyrna Beach.
August 2018: Gov. Rick Scott reappoints Miklos to water board.
February 2019: Surveyor Kimberly Buchheit files ethics complaint against Miklos for having too many conflicts between his environmental consulting service and board service.
February 2019: Gov. Ron DeSantis rescinds all appointments by Gov. Scott that haven’t been confirmed by Senate.
Since DeSantis took office, a flurry of appointments made by Gov. Rick Scott in the waning days of his administration have been up in the air, and many have been rescinded. On Friday, DeSantis sent a letter to Senate President Bill Galvano at 3:25 p.m. saying he had “retracted” 166 additional appointments that required Senate confirmation. It was not clear Saturday whether those listed in DeSantis’ letter accounted for all the remaining appointments Scott made.
Buchheit had suggested the governor ask Miklos to resign because of his “significant, ongoing pattern and practice of disclosed and undisclosed conflicts,” with either the intentional or unintentional help of other board members and district staff.
His “blatant disregard” for filing disclosures coupled with the numerous conflicts he has disclosed, she wrote, “appears to establish wrongful intent without even taking into account all of the ‘conflicts’ that may have been occurring ‘outside of the sunshine’ of public meetings.” And, Buchheit added, the lack of disclosure makes it impossible to determine whether he’s representing the clients in his various businesses or the people of the state of Florida.
The ethics commission does not confirm or deny complaints, but copied Buchheit on a Feb. 8 letter sent to Miklos informing him of the complaint. If the commission decides Buchheit’s complaint is legally sufficient, it will conduct a preliminary investigation.
Miklos did not respond to a request for comment. He has not responded to The News-Journal since a 2016 investigation of his work with the city of DeBary. That spring, a furor erupted after Miklos and Bio-Tech were hired as subcontractors to a city engineer to try to help the city get permits to use water management district-owned conservation land adjacent to Gemini Springs. Miklos was contracted with the city at a rate of $155 an hour.
At that time, Miklos said: “I have always, and will always, take ethics and conflicts very seriously, and I have always declared my conflicts.”
Buchheit’s complaint echoes concerns voiced in the past by Volusia County officials and residents who said Miklos is too conflicted. The previous ethics complaint, filed in 2016 by Deltona resident Don Mair, raised questions about Miklos conflicts in representing DeBary in the issue while serving on the board. In that case, although an ethics commission investigator found probable cause that Miklos had violated state ethics rules, the commission voted in December 2016 not to pursue the investigation.
A lack of trust
This time, at least one of Miklos’ colleagues on the district board shares Buchheit’s concerns. Board member Allan Roberts, a St. Augustine cattleman and farmer, recently began looking into controversies surrounding Miklos’ tenure on the board and researching state ethics laws after hearing “a lot of concern and complaints from numerous sources.”
“Apparently the abuse of a seat on the SJRWMD board has been going on for quite a while,” Allan Roberts said Thursday. “What makes it even worse is the abuser is the chairman of the board and is in his sixth year as chairman, elected annually by his fellow board members.”
“I believe through the eyes of the general public that we serve, this has created a general lack of trust, and lowered confidence in the board to carry out the business of the district in a professional manner,” he added.
Allan Roberts is one of the three St. Johns board members whose appointments were rescinded by DeSantis on Friday. The third is Janet Price of Fernandina Beach.
Buchheit’s interest in Miklos and his conflicts cropped up when she was asked last August to look into the release of a previously set-aside conservation easement to allow additional development at an Orlando-area construction project, Contractors Business Park, where Bio-Tech was a consultant.
Over the years the district has changed the rules for conservation easements, making it easier for developers to get permission to renegotiate those easements and build on sites preserved as wetland mitigation during earlier projects. The release of easements are most often handled by staff and then included on the water district board’s consent agenda.
Environmental advocates concerned about the cumulative loss of those wetlands, particularly in the headwaters of the Wekiva and Little Wekiva rivers, asked Buccheit to take a look. Buchheit, who received the Outstanding Professional Award for Civic Contribution from the Florida Surveying and Mapping Society in 2001, has been a surveyor in Central Florida since the mid-1980s and knows her way around water management district permit files. She obtained copies of agendas and minutes and kept searching.
As she looked through the board minutes and agenda items, she discovered Miklos had declared a conflict of interest when the Business Park easement came up.
Passing the gavel
Then she discovered the undeclared conflicts. Five times between December 2016 and May 2018, Miklos handed the gavel to Vice Chairman Fred Roberts and left the dais. In each case, while he was out, the board voted on the consent agenda and each time that item included the release or partial lease of a conservation easement on a project where Bio-Tech was involved.
As she reviewed each set of minutes and agendas, Buchheit said she couldn’t believe what she was seeing. “I’m kind of a no-nonsense gal and I saw something that didn’t look right and I just had to do something,” she said.
Using the information in her complaint, The News-Journal reviewed the minutes and agenda items and documented the following:
• On Dec. 13, 2016 the board considered items out of order. Miklos handed the gavel to Fred Roberts after agenda item nine. Then the board approved the consent agenda, including the release of a conservation easement on two projects where Bio-Tech was consultant: Harbor View Marina in Flagler County and Summerbrooke in Lake County. The minutes note no conflicts were declared and the meeting was adjourned at 12:52 p.m.
• On April 11, 2017, Miklos turned the meeting over to Fred Roberts at 11:23 a.m. Before Miklos returned to the dais four minutes later, the consent agenda was approved, including an item for the release of a conservation easement for a client of Bio-Tech Consulting, Goldenrod Road Warehouse.
• On May 9, 2017, Miklos turned the meeting over to Fred Roberts at 11:15 a.m and returned at 11:18 a.m. The consent agenda was approved while Roberts had the gavel, including the partial release of a conservation easement for the Silver Lakes Industrial Park in Seminole County, a Bio-Tech project.
• On May 8, 2018, the minutes note Miklos left to take a call as the meeting was beginning at noon. Miklos returned to the meeting after agenda items 1-5 were approved, including the consent agenda, with the partial release of an easement for a project where Bio-Tech is a consultant, a storage facility at Mason and Williamson in Daytona Beach.
• On Oct. 9, 2018 Miklos turned the meeting over to Fred Roberts at 11:42 a.m. and returned 12 minutes later. Again, the consent agenda was approved in his absence, including an item for the release of a conservation easement on a project represented by Bio-Tech, Avalon Groves in Lake County.
Fred Roberts, an Ocala attorney, said the chairman always informs him in advance that he’s going to have to step away and hand over the gavel. He said there has been no “orchestrated attempt to subvert the requirements of declaring a conflict by passing off the chairmanship. “I have never seen the first inkling of an indication that that exists,” he said. “Nor have I ever considered it a possibility because of the scenarios at which each played out.”
At other meetings where similar easements were released for projects represented by Bio-Tech, Miklos recused himself from the vote and cited a conflict. For example, he declared a conflict on the release of conservation easements on projects represented by Bio-Tech in June 2017 and August 2017. District records show he declared conflicts four times in 2016 and four times in 2017.
Buchheit questions Miklos’ involvement in the easement releases as water management district chairman.
“He’s getting these easements released through this agency he’s supposed to regulate and he’s getting these easements released so they can be developed,” she said. “He’s taking worthless land and turning it into something of value for his clients.”
An appeal to Gov. DeSantis
Both Allan Roberts and Buchheit were pleased with the news that Miklos’ appointment had been rescinded.
Even before the Friday announcement, Allan Roberts said Gov. DeSantis was aware of the situation, and that he believed the governor would eliminate “this type of abuse” from the water district’s board and other abuses throughout the state. Roberts had been appointed last February by Gov. Scott but his name didn’t make it onto the list of confirmations approved by the Senate in last year’s legislative session.
“Awesome,” was Buchheit’s response when told about DeSantis letter.
“This is very good news,” she said. “I’m pleased with the governor’s action. He’s just trying to get rid of the Rick Scott croneyism.”
Buchheit had previously lauded the governor for steps he’d taken already, including his request for the resignations of all the South Florida Water Management District board members.
“It was your ‘clean reset’ concept and brave leadership that inspired me to do my personal ethical duty,” she wrote. “I believe that it would be appropriate to ask for resignations of at least some of the SJRWMD governing board members.”
Other district board members also “should be scrutinized for their participation in Mr. Miklos’ system of vote evasion and failure to declare conflicts and disclose clients, as required by law,” she said. “But, clearly, Mr. Miklos’ conduct stands out and must be addressed immediately.”
The “casual acceptance” of his dual, conflicting roles as a private consultant and public officer is a classic example of an agency being controlled by the industries or interests they are charged with regulating, Buchheit wrote to DeSantis. “As such, Mr. Miklos’ ability to develop a pattern of bad behavior was either intentionally or unintentionally facilitated by staff and appears to have been enabled by a lack of administrative oversight in the agency from the top down.”
The News-Journal was asked by the Governor’s office to put questions about Miklos and the ethics complaint into an email to the governor’s media staff on Thursday. No response was received to that email or follow-up emails sent on Friday and Saturday.
The appointments of three other board members are due to expire March 1, Fred Roberts, Chuck Drake and Ron Howse. District officials were not available to comment Saturday on the status of board members.
Miklos was appointed to the governing board in March 2010 by Gov. Charlie Crist and reappointed by Scott in March 2014 and August 2018. He has served on the DeSantis environment transition team and he and his companies donated at least $21,500 to the DeSantis’ gubernatorial election campaign.
He was elected board chairman in November 2013 and is now the longest-serving chairman in the history of the district.
Miklos’ business boomed in the years after he was appointed chairman, according to The News-Journal’s 2016 investigation. His company was a consultant on 11 projects permitted in either the St. Johns or South Florida water management districts in 2011, 32 in 2013 and 75 in 2015.
He has also attracted controversy because several projects Bio-Tech represents have received big fines for working without the required wetlands permits, including Consolidated-Tomoka and Geosam projects in Volusia County.
A permit reviewer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers once told The News-Journal that Miklos’ “standard business practice is to ignore (the rules) and make other people force them to comply.”
Board member conflicts
Buchheit is not the first to question the conflicts that crop up for board members who are consultants, engineers and attorneys representing clients with the state’s five water districts.
The issue has always been a little murky, since the districts were created in the 1970s. One paragraph in the Florida statutes clearly states no public officer shall have any contractual relationship with any business subject to the regulation of the agency of which he is an officer. The law goes on to state that officials shouldn’t have contracts that create “a continuing or frequently recurring conflict between his or her private interests and the performance of his or her public duties or that would impede the full and faithful discharge of his or her public duties.”
However, a subsequent paragraph states the law shouldn’t prohibit a public officer from practicing a particular profession when that profession is permitted or required by state law. The very law that created the districts states board members shall have significant experience in agriculture, the development industry, government, untilities, engineering, environmental science, hydrology or finance.
However, a number of former St. Johns board members have said no board member has been as conflicted as Miklos.
Allan Roberts, no relation to the vice chairman, wrote the water management district’s general counsel, Bill Abrams, asking questions about the law regarding contracts and conflicts.
“The principle behind this provision is that one cannot serve two masters,” Abrams responded. “It arises when a person’s private economic interests might override or interfere with performing that person’s duties as a District employee or board member.”
However, Abrams noted board members aren’t required to report potential conflicts if the issue isn’t coming to the board for a vote. Environmental resource permit applications, for example, are delegated to staff and are not a duty of board members.
One other issue Buchheit raised is the filing of the quarterly disclosure forms required by state law. Miklos and other district board members should be filing the reports with the Supervisor of Elections in their home counties, listing the clients they represent with the district, she said. “That’s the only way the public has to know the clients he’s representing.”
The Orange County elections office told The News-Journal they have no record of those forms being filed by any recent board members whose companies sometimes represent clients with the St. Johns or South Florida water management districts.
Buchheit’s next step is to forward her complaint to the state senators who would be asked to review this list of future gubernatorial appointments for confirmation, in case Miklos reapplies to the district board or any other board.
“I don’t think that he should be on any board that is supposed to serve the public good because I don’t think he understands how to do that above his own private interest,” she said.