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Tallahassee's conflicted interests

Why real ethics reform will never happen in Florida

Saunders, who sits on the board of Planned Parenthood of Greater Orlando and is a longtime political advocate for Equality Florida, isn't yet certain how his own professional interests will affect his duties. He's been assigned to three education committees and a health care-quality subcommittee, he says, some of which could produce some overlap. He's currently in discussions and "answering all the questions" about his relationships with both organizations, and will make the decision whether to sever ties when he knows more. "My hope is I'll continue to work with them," he says.

State Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando – a veteran of the House who was elected to the more powerful body this November – says that the new Senate rule barring votes on conflicts of interests is a good step. He alludes to a conflict between bicameral cousins state Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, and former state Rep. Baxter Troutman, R-Winter Haven, who, when voting on the SunRail deal with CSX Corp. transportation company in 2009, took different approaches to whether they should vote on it or not. Both had a family business interest in CSX via Phoenix Industries. Troutman abstained from voting and criticized Alexander for not doing the same. Now both houses will require disclosure.

"I think we have to start with what we're doing already, which is direct conflicts of interest," Soto says. "If something is going to benefit you or your family, that should be addressed. The indirect stuff is more difficult."

That nuanced gray area is has been the regular stomping ground of outgoing Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland. Dockery, who has served in the legislature for 16 years, has presented a conflict-of-interest bill five times – including the 2012 session – only to see it die in committee. She's also been a proponent of multiple other ethics reforms, including those involving budgetary accountability.

"What's happened in the past is that questionable things would appear in the budget, things like the Taj Mahal," she says, referring to a notorious $48 million appropriation for an extravagant courthouse in Tallahassee in 2007. "Somebody had to sit at a typewriter or keyboard and put it in. Things don't just magically appear. Anything that's of significance needs to have somebody's name attached to it."

But more often than not, Dockery would encounter the blank faces of politicians unwilling to admit their part in the spending process. For the most part, she lays the problem on the culture of getting away with it in Tallahassee. People don't mean to be "sneaky" – they just are. "At the very minimum, staff knows," she says. "There's an unwritten rule; common sense would dictate that your job is going to be on the line if you're chatty. They hold a lot of secrets."

Dockery says she'll continue to advocate from the private sector for public ethics reform, and she's publicly praised the efforts of Integrity Florida in her Florida Voices online column. Unlike many of her peers, she's not leaving office and falling into a high-paying job or a lobbying position. Former House Speakers Dean Cannon and Larry Cretul recently launched Capitol Insight LLC, a Tallahassee lobbying firm rumored to count the Florida Chamber of Commerce among its moneyed clientele. Dockery is reportedly retiring to spend more time with her family, though she seems to understand the temptation of career gain.

"That's kind of the problem," she says. "Florida is such a large state. We're part-time legislators making $29,000 a year, so the people who are running have to have another job or be involved in other arrangements. That opens it up to seeing these grand opportunities. If the salary were equivalent to a full-time position, then it would be a lot easier to not have these conflicts of interest."

As of now, nobody is proposing a raise.

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