Grand jury recommends beefed-up anti-corruption laws, but will the state legislature actually listen? listen12/30/10 Kate Bradshaw
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A state grand jury has affirmed something that Carl Hiaasen fans already know: Florida politics is rife with corruption. Yesterday the Florida Attorney General’s Office issued a report from the Nineteenth Statewide Grand Jury on Corruption. The panel said corruption is rampant at all levels of government.
When it comes to corruption convictions, Florida was number one in the nation between 1998 and 2007. The Sunshine State saw 800 in that time. New York State was a runner-up at 700. That’s according to a grand jury that’s spent the better part of 2010 sifting through years of corruption and scandal in the state. The one-hundred-twenty-seven-page report also contains a legislative wish list aimed at beefing up ethics standards and making officials more accountable.
"What I think the grand jury is saying to the legislature, and rightly so, and that is there are things that you need to deal with here."
That’s State Senator Mike Fasano, a Republican from New Port Richey who plans to file legislation in Tallahassee during the upcoming legislative session.
"There are issues that need to be dealt with, not just policy wise but also statutorily. That you've got to change the statute, you've got to give more authority to the ethics commission to be able to start that investigation on their own and being able to levy fines up to $100,000. Right now, many times, individuals who are found guilty of doing something unethical, not illegal but unethical, get a slap on the back of the wrist."
Fasano said he doesn’t think it’s a case of Florida politicians and state employees being more corrupt as a whole than those of other states, but that law enforcement has been particularly keen at catching corruption. Regardless of the reason for Florida’s top rating when it comes to crooked officials, Fasano said a number of legislative remedies he plans to file could help prevent the misconduct that often makes front page news. Among these, he said, is curbing the practice of shoving legislation through at the tail end of session, a time when one’s colleagues have little time to read a bill and its amendments.
"Last minute amendments put on to pieces of legislation that have a huge fiscal impact. For instance the Taj Mahal in the waning hours of session a year and a half ago. There has to be a cooling off period. You can't allow people who have been convicted of a public theft doing business with a state agency. You also have to come down hard on legislators and elected officials who violate their oath."
Another legislative measure Fasano wants to file – and which the grand jury recommended – is an expansion of the definition of the term “public servant” to include those working for the government under contract.
"Because what happens is, sometimes public employees do fall under the rules, regulations, and policy within that agency or within legislature. But a private employee, someone who's being contracted, does not and we need to expand that to include those contractors that are being paid."
The panel also wants the legislature to create a “blind trust” for the assets of certain elected officials so their investments couldn't potentially influence their policy stances – something Senator Fasano also supports.
"You would not have any details or know anything about where your dollars are being invested. Therefore any decisions you make in the Cabinet, any votes that you take within the Cabinet, or at a Cabinet meeting, there would be no conflict because you would not know whether the vote that you are casting will have an impact on your blind trust because you don't know what investments are within your blind trust."
The grand jury report gives a detailed history of ethics reform and the corruption that sparked their investigation. It addresses not only conduct of senators, state representatives, and the cabinet, but also that of non-elected public servants. One of the agencies whose prior indiscretion served as an example of the problem is the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The report says employees at the office flouted expensing procedures and some even stole flat screen TVs with little or no reprimand. Fish and Wildlife spokesperson Susan Smith said the agency has taken steps to remedy any wrongdoing.
"The FWC's Inspector General found suspicious state purchasing. State purchasing card purchases by several employees and took immediate action. We have cooperated with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and certainly steps have been taken by our senior leadership to ensure that these types of purchases don't happen in the future."
Still, she said the agency welcomes any further safeguards against misconduct.
"As an agency we are very supportive of certainly our employees participating in fiscal behavior again, we don't tolerate this type of activity. We do take the responsibility very, very seriously. We know the people of Florida expect us to spend their money in a fiscally responsible manner."
While the grand jury report lists several recommendations, there’s no guarantee they’ll be made into law. Senator Mike Fasano said this isn’t the first time a grand jury has recommended an ethics overhaul.
"Grand Juries in the past have made recommendations. A grand jury almost 20 years ago made a recommendation to change the way the Public Service Commission deals, as far as transparency and communication. Unfortunately nothing has been done yet to address those recommendations by a grand jury dealing with the Public Service Commission."
Another avenue by which ethics reforms can make it into law is by way of a constitutional amendment, which would only go on the statewide ballot with support of citizens or the legislature. Fasano said he’s confident his colleagues will support amping up ethics laws by way of legislation, but no matter what, one thing’s for sure…
"You can't legislate morality. You never have and you never will. You can pass the toughest laws that you want but if somebody wants to break that law they will, unfortunately."
The report also calls for boosting the maximum civil penalty cap from ten thousand to one hundred thousand dollars and changing state level conflict of interest guidelines to reflect that of local elected officials.