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Tallahassee's conflicted interests

Why real ethics reform will never happen in Florida

One year ago, amid a flurry of accusations of conflicts of interest involving cozy relationships between for-profit charter schools and legislators, Gaetz sounded softer on the issue when talking to the Tampa Bay Times, advocating for disclosure and avoidance of conflict of interest, but arguing that sometimes legislators – especially in a part-time body of officials with private-sector jobs – are the best to turn to on the issues involving their professions. According to the Times, "He also cautioned against 'selective indignation,'" apparently signaling that the conflict and the interest aren't always what they seem. The fact remains that these so-called ethics problems may not be so easy to address when the people presenting the problems are simultaneously charged with addressing them. It's tough to be your own enforcement.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Florida led all of the other states in the country in federal public corruption convictions between 2000 and 2010, with 781 cases. But that number doesn't paint the full picture of the problem that plagues the state.

In January, former Florida Chamber of Commerce chief strategy and communications officer Dan Krassner launched an intentionally nonpartisan research institute called Integrity Florida. Bringing together former politicians, newspaper editors, Tea Party leaders, activists and attorneys, the group has spent the entirety of the year compiling reports on Florida's tendencies toward corruption in an effort to convince the state legislature that reform is necessary. Ben Wilcox, the group's research director, is encouraged by the recent pronouncements coming from House and Senate leadership.

"I would say it's much more than I've ever seen," Wilcox says. "I've never seen this kind of momentum on ethics reform or campaign finance reform coming from the lips of the leadership when we're going into a legislative session. They really made some promises that I think they've got to deliver on."

But he also suggests that some of Florida's apparent ethics problem could come from the sheer size of the state.

"Florida is one of the biggest states in the country, so that's an obvious reason. There's a lot of opportunity for mischief here," Wilcox says. (Indeed, the Sunshine State exceeds the country's most populous states, California, Texas and New York, in federal corruption convictions.)

The group has taken most of its cues from the "State Integrity Investigation" released by the Center for Public Integrity and Public Radio International in March. The groups examined corruption risk based on 14 categories of transparency – including lobbying disclosure, internal auditing and judicial accountability – and gave Florida an overall grade of C-, ranking it 18th best among the other states in the nation. That report found that, although Florida has a history of promoting transparency – specifically, the 1967 Sunshine Law regarding open public meetings and the 1976 Sunshine Amendment, which required financial disclosures from public officials and established the Florida Commission on Ethics – the current lobbying morass and absence of real enforcement have made that history superficial. The State Integrity Investigation gave Florida an F for its ethics enforcement.

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