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Gov. Rick Scott gets strong pitch for tougher ethics laws

Gov. Rick Scott is being urged to support tougher ethics laws in Florida, including strengthening the voting conflict law so that certain public officials would have to abstain from voting in cases in which they declare a conflict of interest.

Scott and two top aides, general counsel Jesse Panuccio and policy chief Chris Finkbeiner, met Wednesday with Virlindia Doss, executive director of the Commission on Ethics, and Matt Carlucci, a Jacksonville businessman and Scott's latest appointee to the bi-partisan, nine-member ethics panel. Kerrie Stillman, the ethics commission's spokeswoman, said Scott asked for the meeting.

"He was very interested in what we had to say," said Stillman, who also attended.

"The commission has some good ideas, which we're reviewing," said Scott's chief spokeswoman, Melissa Sellers. "We look forward to working with the legislative leadership."

The ethics agency is asking for four specific changes to state law:

* Hold state-level appointed officials to the same standard as local appointed officials, who must abstain from voting in cases in which they have declared a conflict of interest.   

* Allow the commission to record automatic fines as a lien on real and personal property, giving the agency more leverage to collect unpaid fines, which have mushroomed in recent years.

* Allow state attorneys, FDLE, the governor's office and Department of Financial Services to refer ethics complaints to the commission, subject to a super-majority vote (at least six members) to trigger an ethics investigation. The commission is not asking for the power to initiate its own investigations, something it has requested repeatedly in the past without success.

* Revise the legal definition of what constitutes a reckless complaint to make it more difficult for people to recover legal fees from a person who makes a frivolous complaint. "This has had a chilling effect on complaints," the commission said in a summary of the proposal.

Any changes to Florida ethics laws must be approved by the state Legislature, whose members are subject to the ethics laws.

Steve Bousquet