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Tallahassee's conflicted interests

Why real ethics reform will never happen in Florida

On Nov. 20, as the sun rose on a new class of legislators in Tallahassee anticipating next spring's session, a wash of symbolic altruism showered down directly from the leadership. It wasn't intended to be an orientation-day pep talk, but rather something more substantial: a call to arms to combat how wrong things have gone in recent years for the state's often shambolic legislative branch. What's more, things were about to change.

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, took the floor and addressed the incoming class of state officials. "In my medium-sized North Florida county, a commissioner was just removed for official misconduct, the tourism director committed suicide after he stole bed tax and BP money, the speaker of the House was forced to resign, the tax collector was run out of office, our college president was fired and our sheriff is in federal prison," he said. "That's just my county."

Specifically, Gaetz, who hails from Okaloosa County, was referring to the following: the September arrest of Okaloosa County Commissioner James Campbell by the Florida Department of Law enforcement on four counts of official misconduct and four counts of perjury stemming from income he received for recruiting sponsors for a local festival without truthfully disclosing that income to the Florida Commission on Ethics; former Okaloosa tourism official Mark Bellinger, who killed himself amid allegations that he had skimmed $1.4 million from his job – which included handling post-BP oil spill funds – to purchase a mansion and a yacht; former Speaker of the House Ray Sansom, who stepped down after allegedly steering $36 million to Northwest Florida State College in exchange for a $110,000-a-year job (among other calamities); that college's president, Bob Richburg, who was fired after attempting to accept $6 million in state taxpayer dollars via Sansom for a private airplane hangar; and former Okaloosa Sheriff Charlie Morris, who was arrested and convicted in 2009 on federal fraud and money laundering charges.

It was time, according to Gaetz, to clean house. The Senate immediately adopted new rules that would bar senators from voting on bills involving conflicts of interest and force one hour of ethics training on incoming members of the legislative body. Across the capitol building in the House chambers, where similar conflict-of-interest rules were already in place, incoming Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, broadened his shoulders and the ethics argument to include bipartisan efforts and election reform, specifically addressing campaign finance, which has grown into its own intractable game of hide-the-money via secretive electioneering committees.

Initial signs from government watchdog groups and legislators alike indicate cautious optimism about state government reforming itself, regardless of the fact that ethics reform has been an ongoing joke – and a sponsored bill, in one form or another, destined to die before hitting the floor – for years. But one moment of press-released integrity will have a hard time erasing decades of learned behavior, and published reports rank Florida No. 1 in instances of public corruption.

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