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On ethics reform, 'one step forward and two steps back'

A leading ethics expert in Florida said Monday that the Legislature's efforts to strengthen state ethics laws are
"one step forward and two steps back" and in some cases would make things more lax than they are now.

Attorney Phil Claypool, the retired executive director of the Commission on Ethics, appeared at a news conference with Integrity Florida, the Tea Party Network and Progress Florida -- all groups that say the current ethics proposals before the Senate and House are not strong enough. They critiqued the legislative proposals on the eve of a scheduled vote Tuesday in the House Ethics & Elections Subcommittee.

"It's not progress," said Claypool, who worked for the ethics agency for more than three decades. He said he was especially troubled by these proposed changes:

* Providing for blind trusts for elected officials that "blind" the public from holdings that could be conflicts of interest, by excluding the ethics commission's recommendations, such as requiring public disclosure of the
assets that are in the trust.

* Giving public officials a 60-day grace period to file amended financial disclosure forms to avoid being prosecuted for improper filings.

* Prohibiting the ethics commission from investigating cases if an official's mistakes were "immaterial or inconsequential."

"Does this protect us, the people of Florida, or does it protect the interests of public officials?" Claypool asked. In all his years as an ethics watchdog, he said, "I did not hear from the public that we were being too aggressive
against public officials. What I regularly heard from the public and the press was that we were toothless tigers, we were ineffectual, and we didn't have enough power."

Claypool said there are some positive aspects to the ethics proposals, such as requiring financial disclosure forms to be posted online, giving the ethics commission up to 20 years to pursue scofflaws who don't pay fines, and
broadening "revolving door" restrictions on legislators who become lobbyists. But it's not enough, he said.

-- Steve Bousquet