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Gelber asks Crist to call a special session on corruption and oil liability

Sen. Dan Gelber, a Miami Beach Democrat and attorney general candidate, Tuesday sent a letter to Gov. Charlie Crist, asking him to follow up on his suggestion that a special session be held to take up the unfinished public corruption proposals as well as find a way to give the state's attorney general the tools needed recover the state's costs from the oil spill.

At a oil spill breifing between legislators and Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Mike Sole today, Gelber noted that BP has said it will pay for legitimately filed and objectively verified claims of injury and losses "and my assumption is they are going to still reimburse the state for things that might not be a property damage or personal injury or commercial loss...that may be truly necessary.

"Is that true or are we going to be finding out we may be doing a lot to find out that BP is only going to pony up what is its damage injury and actual commercial loss?" Gelber asked.

Sole responded that BP to date ''does anticipate and plan and are prepared to reimburse the state for its costs for the emergency. I will also say that with Exxon Valdez it took 19 years for the state of Alaska to recover their claims."

Here's the letter: 

May 4, 2010 

The Honorable Charlie Crist

Governor, The State of Florida

Tallahassee, Florida 32399-1399

 Dear Governor Crist:

 The only thing more troubling than the issues passed by the Florida legislature this year were the issues left on the table.  Now is the time to call the Legislature back, tell them to finish the job, and address head on the growing threat to Florida’s economy from the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  

You have indicated previously you intended to call a Special Session to address the public corruption issues plaguing our state. I urge you to follow your initial instinct. As a former federal prosecutor who spent the better part of a decade battling corruption, I was disheartened that the legislature found time to engage so many industry food fights and unnecessary ideological frolics, while ignoring an issue that is truly in need of attention. In the last few years we have had scandals reaching the highest level of state government; yet the legislature seemed too preoccupied with its own partisan agenda and unconstrained ambitions, to advance any major reforms.  

Therefore, I would urge you to call the Legislature back to Tallahassee to address these two important issues.  

To strengthen our ability to tackle public corruption and ethics, and transparency of government, I offered some measures, which while not necessarily the only ideas we should consider, are a start.

 §  Apply more sunshine to the Legislature. Presently, the legislature does not have to comply with the same open government requirements as local government. This proposal seeks to amend Florida’s constitution to bring more openness to the legislative process (especially the budgetary process). It will also require our budget documents to be user friendly, easy to read and understand.  It will require a three-fourths vote to add an amendment on the floor during the last week of session to reduce the last minute back room deals showing up for a vote without public scrutiny.  Providing greater transparency to government will only serve to bring greater accountability, as sunshine tends to be a terrific antiseptic. (SJR 440 in this last session) 

§  Enhance penalties for crimes committed while acting through official capacity. Current Florida law does not adequately address the unique and lasting harm inflicted on community when a public servant uses his or her position to commit a criminal act.  The proposed bill does not create a new crime, but re-classifies an existing crime when a defendant using a public office (acting under color of law) to facilitate to further the criminal acts.   The proposed legislation is patterned after the hate crimes enhancement under Florida law. (SB 734/HB 489 this last session) 

§  Punish officials who corruptly fail to disclose personal financial gain from their public actions. The legislation provides that it is a second-degree felony for a public servant, with corrupt intent, to willfully fail to disclose certain direct or indirect financial interests or benefits relating to their official actions. (SB 1076/HB 585 this last session) 

§  Expand the sweep of bribery statutes. Adds the word “agent” to the definition of “Public Servant” in F.S. 838.014(6)(c). As it stands now, an agent of government is not chargeable with Bribery, Unlawful Compensation or Official Misconduct. This loophole has resulted in some matters being declined for prosecution despite evidence of wrongdoing. (SB 1458/HB1153 this last session) 

§  Enforces laws relating to bid tampering. F.S.838.22 provides for an offense of Bid Tampering when a public servant, who is required by rule, statute or established government policy to advertise for public bid, fails to do so without legal authority or good cause. (SB 1554/HB1357 this last session) 

§  Fund additional public corruption prosecutors. All the statutory changes in the world won’t make a difference if our state attorneys lack the manpower to engage the battle. Corruption cases are highly labor intensive and budget cuts have made it increasingly difficult for state attorneys to navigate all the demands placed on their offices. The legislature should allot additional funds for “special prosecutions” which would include public corruption and complex economic cases. 

We must also move with speed to introduce a constitutional amendment that would ban the practice of near shore oil drilling.  Somehow my colleagues were able to rally around numerous constitutional amendments aimed at protecting their own jobs, or measures that more resemble “push polls” lifted from Republican Party talking points, than sound public policy.  I have long been inalterably opposed to near shore drilling, and believe we should give our citizens the chance to render their judgment through a constitutional amendment. If the last few weeks have taught us anything, it’s that the risks associated with drilling will never outweigh the money offered by Big Oil, no matter how much they pump into the political system or offer the state.  We need to put the oil drilling debate in our rear view mirror and move on. 

During the special session, the legislature must pass whatever laws are necessary to help address this potential economic crisis, and to make sure the Attorney General has both the power and the tools to hold accountable the companies involved in the oil spill, so that the taxpayers aren't on the hook for a single dime to both clean up the mess and make whole the families and businesses impacted by the spill.  Ironically, the Attorney General’s number one priority this legislative session was a measure intended to limit the hiring of attorneys in precisely the scenario we may need them should the winds and ocean currents prove unfavorable to our State. 

Thank you for your consideration of these requests.


Dan Gelber