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Ethics Reform In Florida Called 'A Mixed Bag'

LaCrai Mitchell/WLRN-Miami Herald News

At the WLRN Miami Herald Town Hall meeting last month, Barbara Ricano from Sunrise wanted to know:

“After so many ethics violations and repeated ethical issues involving campaigns and elected officials, why are the consequences so minor? Why is there no real teeth to any of the penalties?”

Members of the ethics commission have complained that while they have the ability to fine office holders who commit violations, they don’t have the authority to collect those fines.

Florida Senate President Don Gaetz wants to change that.

“When you give the ethics commission the teeth to fine politicians who violate ethics and elections laws and garnish their salaries and lien their private property,” Gaetz says, “I think it’ll change a lot.”

Those are some of the tougher rules facing politicians if the House and Senate come to an agreement.

Gaetz promised swift action on ethics reform, and he delivered. The Senate passed a reform package on the first day of the legislative session.

But differences with the Florida House will have to be ironed out before the legislation gets final approval.

Under the Senate proposal - known as SB2 - lawmakers in certain cases would not be able to accept other jobs while in office. This provision could be named for former Rep. Ray Sansom, R-Destin.

Northwest Florida State College handed Sansom a newly created part-time job - with a six figure salary - on the same day he became Florida's House Speaker in late 2008. The fallout led Sansom to resign from the college and the Legislature. 

"When you give the ethics commission the teeth to...garnish their salaries and lien their private property, I think it'll change a lot.” ~Senate President Don Gaetz

Gaetz says former members of the Legislature would not be able to lobby lawmakers or state agencies for two years after leaving office.

“We have politicians who serve as presiding offers who then go out and lobby the executive or legislative branches.  As president of the Senate, I’ll be gone in two years," Gaetz says. "I shouldn’t be able to trade on the trust that my colleagues and the people of Florida have placed in me and go out and get rich as a lobbyist. That’s wrong.”

Florida's most recent House Speaker, Dean Cannon, opened a lobbying firm in Tallahassee as soon as his term ended late last year.

Cannon knew he wouldn't be able to lobby lawmakers during his first two years out of office. But he expected to lobby the executive branch -- which includes Gov. Rick Scott, the Cabinet, and some state agencies.

Credit flsenate.gov
Sen. Jack Latvala helped craft the ethics reform package approved by the Senate. It will likely go through some changes before approval by the Florida House.

Clearwater Republican Jack Latvala helped sponsor the Senate bill. It’s worth noting that Latvala is a federal lobbyist, but this bill would not apply to him because he only lobbies Congress.  

“I think we all recognize that the public confidence in government is at an all-time low,” Latvala told  Senators before they voted on ethics reform.

“Part of it is because of what people read about different people who get elected to office and then take that office and make it like it’s their own office, it’s for their use rather than the people’s use,” Latvala said.

Dan Krassner with the government watchdog Integrity Florida calls the Senate bill a mixed bag.

“The legislation being considered would allow some additional ethics complaints and referrals to the ethics commission from law enforcement agencies,” Krassner says. “It would put more financial disclosure information online for the public to see.”

But Krassner says some changes would actually weaken ethics laws, like the do-over provision.

Public officials who don’t report all of their assets would have 30 days to correct their financial disclosure form without penalty, and they don’t have to change anything if no one complains.

Even if someone discovers a blatant omission – like an expensive vacation home – the violator gets 30 days to correct the error before the ethics commission can take action.

Officials would also have the option of shielding their assets in a blind trust. That could enable lawmakers to hide potential conflicts of interest.

In addition, Krassner says officials would be off the hook for any violations that could be considered accidental.

“Under the ethics bill, complaints that are determined to be inadvertent or unintentional violations of our state ethics code by our public officials would be required to be dismissed from the ethics commission,” Krassner says. “That would severely weaken ethics enforcement in Florida.” 

Former ethics commission executive director Phil Claypool sees good and bad in the Senate's bill. He spells it all out in this memo to Integrity Florida.

People like Barbara Ricano from Sunrise at the Town Hall may not be completely satisfied with what the Legislature comes up with.

But legislative leaders say they will find a compromise on ethics reform, and it’s likely to include ethics training for all state and local politicians.

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