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Pigman leaves chairmanship; gets boost in ethics case

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – State Rep. Cary Pigman stepped down Tuesday as chairman of a House health-care panel after being arrested last week on a drunken-driving charge in St. Lucie County.

But in a separate matter, an administrative law judge ruled Monday that Pigman should be cleared in an ethics case involving allegations that he improperly linked efforts to get state funding for the Okeechobee County school district with retaliation against a school principal because of a personal dispute.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran's office released a statement Tuesday announcing that Pigman, R-Avon Park, will no longer serve as chairman of the House Health Quality Subcommittee. Pigman, a 58-year-old physician, was arrested late Thursday after being pulled over on Florida's Turnpike. Tests showed a blood-alcohol level of 0.14 and 0.15 -- nearly twice the legal limit of .08.

"Having spent a career fighting for and defending this country, Dr. Pigman knows that it is honorable to take responsibility for one's actions," Corcoran said in a prepared statement, referring to Pigman's lengthy service in the Navy and the U.S. Army Reserve. "It is the honorable thing to do. Dr. Pigman has done both by informing me that he wishes to step down as chairman of the Health Quality Subcommittee."

Pigman was replaced in the chairmanship by Rep. Jeanette Nunez, a Miami Republican who is a top lieutenant to Corcoran. Nunez chaired a meeting of the subcommittee that started at noon Tuesday, about an hour after the announcement from the speaker's office.

The announcement came a day after Administrative Law Judge June McKinney issued a 22-page ruling that recommended dismissing ethics allegations against Pigman. That recommendation will go to the Florida Commission on Ethics for a final order.

The commission in September found probable cause that Pigman violated a state law by improperly using his office in the Okeechobee County dispute. Pigman's largely rural district includes Okeechobee, Glades, Highlands and part of St. Lucie counties.

The ethics case stemmed, at least in part, from a legislative delegation meeting in October 2015 in Okeechobee County. During the meeting, Tracy Downing, an elementary-school principal, made an obscene gesture to Pigman, McKinney wrote. At the time, Pigman was in a romantic relationship with a woman who was married to Downing's then-incarcerated brother.

Also at the time, Okeechobee County was seeking money from the state, including $60 million to help build a new high school.

During a December 2015 meeting, Pigman told school Superintendent Kenneth Kenworthy about Downing's conduct and said it would be in the "back of my mind when thinking about the school district," McKinney wrote. Two weeks later, Downing filed an ethics complaint against Pigman, alleging that he requested she be fired because of personal reasons.

Kenworthy on Jan. 4, 2016, suspended Downing for 10 days without pay, according to McKinney's ruling. On Jan. 22, 2016, Pigman and Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, wrote a letter to the state Department of Education supporting the $60 million for the new high school --- though the request was later denied.

In the ruling, McKinney wrote that the "record lacks credible evidence to show respondent (Pigman) either used his position as a state representative or any efforts to manipulate Superintendent Kenworthy into addressing the delegation meeting incident with Mrs. Downing. Moreover, no reliable evidence regarding funding is interconnected with respondent."

"It is understandable that respondent would have had concerns and reported Mrs. Downing's inappropriate behavior to her supervisor, Superintendent Kenworthy, as would any concerned citizen," McKinney wrote. "Being in the Legislature does not strip a legislator's right to report wrongdoings of a public employee."

But Assistant Attorney General Melody Hadley, who serves as advocate for the ethics commission, filed a document in the case last month that focused, in part, on Pigman's statement to the superintendent that Downing's conduct would be in the back of his mind.

"Tying his personal animosity toward Downing to official legislative duties for the school district is inconsistent with the proper performance of his position as a state representative," Hadley wrote. "Respondent's action in going to Kenworthy with the threat of his future efforts did not serve a public purpose."