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Ethics law moves in Senate, after rocky debate

Four years after she first filed the legislation, Sen. Paula Dockery's ethics bill finally got a hearing -- and a favorable vote -- in a committee Wednesday, but not before some of her colleagues voiced their displeasure with portions of the measure.

Senate Bill 86, sponsored by Dockery, a Lakeland Republican, would block lawmakers from voting on issues that would directly benefit them, their relatives or their employers. They would also have to disclose those conflicts of interest before abstaining from a vote.

Last week, the bill was unexpectedly stripped from the Government Oversight and Operations Committee agenda by the office of Senate President Mike Haridopolos without explanation. Haridopolos' office later said his chief of staff removed the proposal from the agenda because it was too long.

At the same committee Wednesday, the bill was amended -- over some senators' objections -- to allow legislators to vote on the annual state budget as long as they disclose line items that may create a conflict of interest. The state Ethics Commission will also get new authority to initiate investigations without a written complaint if commissioners sign off on the probe unanimously.

Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, a Fort Lauderdale Republican, voted for the bill but urged Dockery to narrow its scope to leave out lawmakers' employers. Bogdanoff works for a law firm that engages in lobbying.

"I think this is a very dangerous move," she said. "I think it's going to open up a can of worms."

Dockery said she was open to further changes and emphasized that her measure would not create penalties for lawmakers who don't disclose conflicts. "It's a code of ethics," she said.

Two committee members voted against the bill: Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, and Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, who took particular issue with the new Ethics Commission powers.