Advocate claims rampant Florida corruption linked to money in politics

05/31/12 Janelle Irwin
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Florida has a corruption problem. So a group is leading an ethics reform charge by looking at how tax dollars are spent. In downtown St. Pete local Democrats learned how Dan Krassner is trying to make government more transparent.

“Florida, well above any other state in the country, is number one in federal public corruption convictions between the years 2000 and 2010.”

And that, Krassner said, is the real job killer in Florida.

“I think businesses look at Florida and they see the level of corruption here and they read about Florida corruption in Forbes magazine. Why would they bring jobs here? Why would they open a business here? Why are there only 16 fortune 500 companies in Florida when we’re about to be the third largest state and the 20th largest global economy? You know what our competitors have? New York, California and Texas all have 50 fortune 500 companies or more each.”

So he and his group, Integrity Florida, are looking at ways to stamp out shady politics. They started with the Enterprise Florida commission that was assembled in 1996 by then Governor Lawton Chiles to create jobs in the state.

“Companies are paying about $50,000 to be on the board of Enterprise Florida to be able to sit next to the Governor and Attorney General, CFO and the Agriculture Commissioner and our legislative leaders. Why would they do that?”

Krassner said the group was convened as a public-private partnership where each side was expected to contribute finances equally, but that’s not happening. According to Krassner, a study showed that the group has only churned out about a third of the jobs promised since 1996. And instead he said the heads of major businesses who’ve bought their way into the club are reaping the benefits.

“A significant number of these companies are getting tax incentives themselves from Enterprise Florida. We found that they’re getting vendor contracts. We’re questioning why is this happening? We went to the meeting in Jacksonville and what we saw: two of the three sponsors of the week’s events were Florida Blue and Wells Fargo. The Wednesday night before the Thursday board meeting there was a reception and a dinner at Florida Blue for the board of Enterprise Florida and they got a vendor contract the next day. Has anyone seen the contract? No. Not even the board.”

Krassner is releasing a report next week that will outline more details about Enterprise Florida’s business practices. Doug Hickman, a progressive advocate, said he’s also worried about the affects of term limits on politicians. When voters passed the 8 year limit in 1992, Hickman said people thought it was going to hinder corruption. But now he’s worried that it’s just making people shift their priorities while holding office.

“So these guys get in there and they figure, ‘well I got eight years to get as much money as I can because maybe I won’t be able to get into the Senate for another eight years’. So it’s like, how do I do all these favors for these people to get my kids jobs or myself jobs because it’s a part time legislation.”

And Integrity Florida’s Krassner said the eight year term limit ends up being more like 16 years because elected officials just hop from one branch to the other. And Krassner thinks there are probably some legislators profiting from insider knowledge.

“You see in the state Senate an average net worth increase of $800,000 from the time that our Senators entered office to the most recent financial disclosure form.”

Since the 2010 Citizens United decision that allows corporations to contribute unlimited amounts of money into political campaigns, money has become more and more of a driving force. Lisa Meyers, a state board member of the League of Women Voters sees that as another threat to democracy.

“The money just affects the decisions made at the top. When we as citizens have no idea who is controlling the purse strings of the government when it’s not really the people we elected into office, it’s the people behind the people, then we don’t know where the decisions are coming from and it just affects us more than we expected when we voted and researched the candidates.”

And then there are lobbyists to worry about. One of Krassner’s favorite quotes is that government isn’t broke, it’s bought. He wants governments to make all of their spending decisions readily accessible. Maybe even have an app for that.

“We have about a $70 billion state budget and about $51 billion of that budget goes to contracts to vendors. So you have about 2,000 lobbyists that are jockeying for a share of that money every year.”

Most of the focus ends up on state and Federal issues. But ethics in politics has been an issue with localities too. Three county commissioners were convicted of corruption over the course less than three years in South Florida’s Palm Beach County. That prompted the county to implement its own ethics commission to serve as a watchdog over policies. St. Pete League of Women Voters’ president Darden Rice said she suggested a similar program.

“When I brought it up, it was immediately shot down. There was a lot of resistance and the response was, ‘oh, we already have statewide ethics laws and this is just another layer of government that’s not needed and we can’t afford this right now’.”

As the group Integrity Florida continues their efforts to bring transparency to governments, its director Dan Krassner said voters need to stay engaged. And with so many upcoming elections, he suggested asking candidates where they stand on ethics reform. He said regardless of their political beliefs, it should be a priority.

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