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Ethics Commission finds probable cause Hillsborough County Tax Collector violated ethics laws

Next step is a settlement agreement or full hearing
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Posted at 7:16 PM, Sep 11, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-17 10:56:51-04

Update: On Sept. 16, the Florida Commission on Ethics issued its order, making the ruling from the Sept. 13 probable cause hearing public.

"Probable cause was found to believe Doug Belden, Hillsborough County Tax Collector, solicited a favor with the understanding his vote, official action or judgment would be influenced. Probable cause also was found to believe he misused his public position and resources to secure a favor concerning his re-election bid."

The Florida Commission on Ethics ruled in a hearing on Friday that there is probable cause to move forward, rather than dismiss an ethics complaint lodged against Hillsborough County Tax Collector Doug Belden.

In June, the I-Team was the first to report on an investigation into the complaint against the elected official, accused of violating state ethics laws.

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PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Longtime Hillsborough Tax Collector under investigation for ethics violations

Alma Gonzalez, an attorney and state committee woman with the Hillsborough County Democratic Party, filed a complaint with the ethics commission last year.

The complaint alleges Belden violated two state statutes, including using his position to secure a political favor. The complaint also alleges Belden sent Gonzalez messages saying he could use his "influence" to help her obtain employment with a private law firm.

When Gonzalez spoke with the I-Team in June, she said the meetings Belden wanted to schedule came with a condition.

"To get me to agree that he would not have a Democratic opponent in his upcoming re-election bid, and when I did not submit to his will, then he resorted to threatening me and my family," said Gonzalez.

The complaint included an email Gonzalez said Belden sent her, saying in part, "I have helped people in Tampa and I have destroyed people in Tampa."

The message went on today, "Hopefully you understand what I am saying. As long as you try to run someone against me there is no reason to meet."

In June, Belden told ABC Action News as part of a statement, "While I regret that the complaint misconstrued my motives, I maintain that the complaint is without merit."

Since the time the complaint says emails were sent -- between July 22, 2019 and August 2019 -- Belden has announced he will not seek re-election, due to medical issues.

After Friday's hearing found probable cause, Belden told I-Team Investigator Kylie McGivern, “I am disappointed, however I am not angry or have ill feelings against anyone. The final conclusion has not been determined. The constituents of Hillsborough County know that I have run an exemplary office for 22 years and have helped many people in my life and have never asked for anything in return. That is the most important thing to me.”

When the commission finds probable cause to believe there is a violation of ethics laws, there are two options -- a settlement agreement or a hearing to present evidence.

If the commission determines someone broke state ethics laws, it may recommend civil penalties. This can include removing someone from office and fines up to $10,000 per violation.

The I-Team reached out to Gonzalez for comment, but has not yet heard back.