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Tallahassee's conflicted interests

Why real ethics reform will never happen in Florida

Integrity Florida's research points to the root of the problem. Among the findings in its July Corruption Risk Report: Financial Disclosure study: 11 state legislators worked for lobbying firms in 2012, 12 legislators disclosed a total of 33 voting conflicts of interest, more than $100,000 in gifts were reported by legislators and top state officials, thousands of public officials didn't even file disclosures, and nearly $90,000 in fines for failing to file disclosures was owed to the state by 66 current and former public officials.

In contrast, a report released by Integrity Florida in tandem with Florida State University's LeRoy Collins Institute in November showed that counties were being forced to pick up the slack on ethics reform and enforcement. Palm Beach County, where four commissioners served prison time for corruption convictions in 2007, launched its own ethics commission in 2010 and rewrote its ethics code the following year. Why? Because the state's ethics commission is generally regarded as toothless, especially considering that its nine-member board is appointed by the governor, the speaker of the House and the Senate president.

"Basically what we've found is that the state ethics laws have been essentially frozen in time since 1976 when Gov. [Reubin] Askew led the effort to pass the Sunshine Amendment and the ethics commission was established," Wilcox says. "Essentially since 1976, the ethics laws haven't been updated."

Violations of the state's code of ethics, written into the Florida Constitution in 1968, haven't been subject to criminal penalties since 1974. Instead, the commission is limited to civil prosecution – fines, effectively – that add up to slaps on wrists. There's also no authority to collect those fines, short of utilizing collection agencies until the fines expire after four years.

"We can't send people to jail," says Florida Commission on Ethics spokeswoman Kerri Stillman, adding that lumping the cases the commission hears with those of the Department of Justice is "comparing apples to oranges."

In its 2011 report, the commission says that "of the 169 complaints received in 2011, 68 were dismissed for lack of legal sufficiency; two were dismissed because they were received within five days of an election; 77 were ordered to be investigated; 21 were pending legal sufficiency determination at the end of the year; and one was on hold for criminal investigation."

Annually, the ethics commission attempts to strengthen its authority, but because those attempts are mitigated by legislative votes, they haven't succeeded in more than a decade. This year, the commission is hoping to gain the ability to initiate investigations on its own – presently, a public complaint has to be filed – and to make its fines more punitive.

"Well, it's too soon to tell what sort of changes that might take place. The commission has sought changes in the past," Stillman says. "We'll just have to wait and see."

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