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Tallahassee's conflicted interests

Why real ethics reform will never happen in Florida

An extensive Tampa Bay Times investigation in 2011 found that education concerns lie at the heart of much of Tallahassee's perceived corruption, even beyond the Sansom case. Specifically, Florida's leadership in the for-profit charter school boom has called the financial interests of many of the state's legislators into question.

State Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, served on the House K-20 Competitiveness Subcommittee and voted in favor of a bill that would make charter-school expansion easier in 2011. His sister is vice president of charter operation Academica, and would stand to profit from the legislation. A complaint was filed with the Florida Commission on Ethics citing Fresen's lack of disclosure, but he was absolved of any guilt.

Former state Rep. John Legg, R-New Port Richey, owned a charter school called Dayspring Academy and sought special treatment from the Pasco County School Board bypassing lottery requirement for kindergarten advancement in 2011. An outspoken advocate for charter school legislation – for obvious reasons – Legg was partially responsible for much of the pro-charter-school legislation passed throughout his eight years of public service. A complaint filed in 2010 alleging numerous conflicts involving Legg was dismissed by the ethics commission. Even current House Speaker Weatherford had his hands in the charter game, submitting his own application to open a charter school in Pasco County after voting in favor of Fresen's bill. The application was denied.

All of which makes this current slouch toward ethical reform that much more suspect for Ritter.

"Don Gaetz and Will Weatherford, they vote lock and step with the governor, and if they're getting their cues from Rick Scott, I would say that having a healthy level of skepticism is very much needed," she says. "These are legislators who make votes that are in clear conflicts of interest with their personal lives and their personal businesses. … We've heard this song and dance before."

To hear incoming legislators speak of it, the heralding of a new day for ethics in Tallahassee may not be all that it's cracked up to be. Beyond that first day of tone-setting oratory, other issues – controversial committee assignments, implementation of the Affordable Care Act and its required insurance exchanges, election reform – have cast a shadow over the singular idealism of a new brand of politics.

"It's hard to read right now, to be honest," says freshman state Rep. Joe Saunders, D-Orlando. "I don't get the sense that the Democratic caucus has a strong sense of what ethics reform is going to look like. What I think is meaningful is that you're hearing Gaetz and Weatherford talk about it.

"To me, what I hope is that as we explore what can very well be substantive reform around ethics, that we don't eclipse the need to have reform on our elections," he adds. "The fact that these two things are being connected right now, that's a serious concern."

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