February 17, 2013

Party loophole in campaign finance bill comes under fire from former party leader

The man who blew the whistle on former Republican Party of Florida Chairman Jim Greer is now crying foul on House Speaker Will Weatherford’s self-described campaign finance reform.

“It’s the same old money laundering and money hiding approach that’s been in place as long as I can remember in Florida politics,’’ said Allan Cox, former vice chairman of the Republican Party and the man who exposed Greer’s secret strategy to steal party funds.

Cox said he hoped Greer’s case would serve as a catalyst to end the tradition of legislators using party funds to skirt state law and live lavish lifestyles. Greer on Monday pleaded guilty to theft and money laundering charges for setting up a consulting firm and steering party money to his personal account.

A bill moving through the House attempts to crack down on political slush funds known as Committees of Continuous Existence, which legislators use to cut themselves checks and get around a 10-year-old law that bars legislators from accepting meals, travel and entertainment from lobbyists. The proposal bans the committees and imposes new disclosure rules on spending done by political committees and candidates. The legislation is a priority for Weatherford.

Absent from the bill, however, are any rules that would require the state’s two dominant political parties to disclose details of how they spend millions of dollars in contributions. Cox believes that will encourage legislative leaders to continue to use their party to finance dinners, travel and entertainment — and escape public scrutiny.

“If we really want to have sunshine for campaign finance reform, we should eliminate the massive loophole that allows the speaker [of the House] and president [of the Senate] to raise funds on behalf of the party, park them at the party and then dictate to the party how and where they will be spent,’’ Cox said. “This is the delicate issue that has been skirted for years and years and years and years.” More here.

February 12, 2013

Sansom friend, Jay Odom, pleads guilty to causing Huckabee to file false reports

Panhandle developer Jay Odom pleaded guilty Tuesday to causing presidential candidate Mike Huckabee to file false campaign reports in 2007. A second charge of laundering $23,000 in contributions to Huckabee will be dropped by prosecutors.

Odom was charged with reimbursing 10 donors who each gave the $2,300 maximum contribution to the candidate. The longtime contributor to the Republican Party of Florida and many GOP candidates appeared before U.S. District Judge Lacey Collier in Pensacola. His sentencing was scheduled for April 23. He faces a maximum penalty of five years in federal prison and a maximum fine of $250,000.

More from Lucy Morgan here. 

February 06, 2013

Committee passes out Ethics Reform bill, delays AG-aimed amendment

The Senate Community Affairs Committee unanimously passed the high-priority Senate bill out of committee this morning, only after deflecting some controversy.

The committee adopted an amendment that Ethics Committee chairman Sen. Jack Latvala said was intended to provide more flexibility to city and county officials who want to take a job on the public payroll after being elected to office. One size doesn't fit all, was the argument, and Latvala said the so-called revolving door provision in the sweeping ethics reform was the one issue he's heard the most heat about.

Officials in small cities and counties argued that they often need to take jobs in other branches of government and opposed the blanket ban on post-election employment in a new public job. 

Continue reading "Committee passes out Ethics Reform bill, delays AG-aimed amendment " »

February 05, 2013

Soto plans amendment to stop 'revolving door' of investigators to companies under investigation

Remember the tweet that roared -- the one that prompted Attorney General Pam Bondi to appear at a Senate committee meeting? The issue will return. State Sen. Darren Soto has filed an amendment to the Senate ethics reform package to be voted on in the Senate Community Affairs Committee Wednesday that would revive his proposal to end the revolving door of lawyers and investigators who leave the attorney general's office and go to work for the companies they had investigated.  Download 02.05.13 amendmentdraft35850 - Integrity of Investigations in CA (1)

Soto, D-Orlando, and two other Democrats filed the proposal last year but it never got a hearing. The proposal is aimed at stopping the practice that came to light after attorneys working for former Attorney General Bill McCollum went to work for companies that specialized in foreclosure law and services that were the subject of an attorney general's investigation.

"Right now, the attorney general doesn't have the authority to stop those folks because of Florida Bar rules,'' Soto said. 

Continue reading "Soto plans amendment to stop 'revolving door' of investigators to companies under investigation" »

January 22, 2013

It might be a landmark bill now, but will ethics reform bill get watered down?

TALLHASSEE — Political ethics experts say they are impressed by many of the items in the proposed bill that a Senate ethics committee unanimously approved Tuesday.

"This sounds like Florida may be taking a big step forward in refining its ethics regulations," said Edwin Bender, executive director of The National Institute on Money in State Politics, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that analyzes the influence of money in politics in all 50 states. "As far as addressing the public's trust in the state Legislature, this is a good step."

Touted as the most far-reaching ethics reform in 36 years, the bill would:

• Extend a ban that currently prohibits lawmakers from lobbying their colleagues in the legislative branch for two years after leaving office to include the executive branch (the governor's office and state agencies);

• Prohibit lawmakers and all elected officials in Florida from accepting a state administrative job after getting elected;

• Require lawmakers to abstain from voting on issues that benefit them or family members;

• And prohibit lawmakers from using political committees for personal expenses.

The bill doesn't have a companion bill yet in the House, where Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, has also declared ethics reform to be a top priority.

"We will shop it over there once we have a bill," said Senate President Don Gaetz, who thanked the chair of the committee, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, for the bill's quick passage Tuesday.

Latvala said he isn't naïve about the bill's chances, but said the committee's unanimous support, including from Democrats and representing a third of the Senate, boosts its chances.

Continue reading "It might be a landmark bill now, but will ethics reform bill get watered down?" »

January 17, 2013

Ethics gets another dose of reform, this time from Fasano

Hoping the third time is the charm, Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, has filed an ethics bill similar to ones he filed as a state senator in 2011 and last year.

Although Fasano’s two previous attempts failed – rather quickly -- the appetite for ethics reform is seemingly insatiable this year among Republicans. Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford have branded ethics reform as the cause celebre of this year’s session that start in March.

“I’m very optimistic, the leadership, the tone from both leaders gives us hope that if not our legislation, something similar to our legislation will deal with these issues,” Fasano said Thursday.

Continue reading "Ethics gets another dose of reform, this time from Fasano" »

November 29, 2012

Report: State could learn ethics lessons from counties

As Florida lawmakers consider beefing up the ethics laws that govern them, they could learn a few things from their counterparts at the county level, a new research report shows.

Florida State University’s LeRoy Collins Institute and Integrity Florida released the report, titled “Tough Choices: Florida Counties Bridge the Ethics Policy Gap,” to highlight some of the ethics ordinances in place at the local level.

 In many cases, county officials have tougher ethics laws than the ones on the books for state lawmakers.

 “This is what counties in Florida have been doing that really makes us proud,” said Dr. Carol Weissert, director of the LeRoy Collins Institute. “We actually are leading the nation in some of these county efforts. We’re also talking about a promising conversation that is going on at the state level.”

Weissert said many of the county-level reforms—including tough laws on campaign finance, gifts from lobbyists, ethics training and voting conflicts—were sparked by Florida’s infamous reputation for government corruption. Between 2000 and 2010, Florida led the nation in federal public corruption convictions, with many of the convictions at the county level.

Counties like Miami-Dade, Broward and Orange have taken steps to try to tamp down on the corruption, launching new ethics commissions and requiring ethics training for elected officials.

Dan Krassner, who advocates for stronger ethics laws as the director of Integrity Florida, said the report could provide some good ideas for the state Legislature, as it plans to do ethics reform next year.

“We’d encourage all county officials that have been involved at the local level to bring your ideas to Tallahassee,” he said. “Come before the Legislature and share your experiences of what’s working and what’s not at the local level.”

House Speaker Will Weatherford (R-Wesley Chapel) and Senate President Don Gaetz (R-Niceville) have each expressed interest in making state government more ethical. The push comes at a time when there is a record amount of special interest money flooding into the political process.

See the full report here.

@ToluseO

November 28, 2012

Miami-Dade ethics board rebukes two city of Miami commissioners

The county ethics commission dinged Miami Commissioner Frank Carollo this week for phoning the police chief after Carollo was pulled over.

The grievance against Carollo said that he called Miami Police Chief Manuel Orosa during a traffic stop in Coconut Grove in August. Carollo was pulled over after attempting to drive his black Lexus around a stopped recycling truck. He called the chief, who called the district commander, who reached out to the officer making the traffic stop.

The officer let Carollo go with a warning.

Carollo denied wrongdoing in a response to the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust written by his attorney. He declined comment Wednesday.

Separately, Miami Commission Vice Chairman Marc Sarnoff was reprimanded for not filing a gift disclosure when the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau paid his way to Brazil.

Sarnoff said his travels did not constitute a gift because he carried out public business. “I did everything I could do, including getting legal advice, to determine that the trip was not a gift,” he said.

Read the story here.

November 19, 2012

Gaetz announces new ethics guidelines, will form 'Obamacare' committee

Senate President Don Gaetz announced today new Senate rules that require senators to abstain from voting on issues where he or she has stated a conflict. In previous years, senators only had to disclose their conflicts within 15 days of a vote.

The Florida House already has a conflict-of-interest voting ban. The Senate has tried unsuccessfully in recent years to pass ethics reform legislation.

Gaetz is also proposing that starting next year, all senators be required to complete an ethics training course that goes over such things as the meeting in the sunshine and public records.

Gaetz will ask the Senate to adopt his proposed rules during Tuesday's organizational session.

He also said today that he will form a Select Committee on Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to study the implementation of the health care law.

Here are some other changes to the committee structure Gaetz is proposing:

  • Merging the appropriations subcommittees on higher education and K-12 education into one education subcommittee. 
  • A new Gaming Committee
  • A new Ethics and Elections Committee. Previously, there was an Rules Subcommittee on Ethics and Elections.
  • Renaming the Health Regulation committee Health Policy.

November 12, 2012

10 Florida Republicans face blame for recent voting issues

The Huffington Post has published an article blasting Florida Republicans for election changes they say led to a "debacle" on election day. And in an accompanying photo slideshow, the site called out 10 party leaders who it says are especially to blame.

Among them: Gov. Rick Scott, incoming Senate President Don Gaetz, newly elected Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Mike Bennett, a former state senator, recently defeated state Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, and even former U.S. Rep. David Rivera, who seemed to make the list because of his own issues concerning allegations of election improprieties.

Here is an excerpt of the article:

Who is responsible for Florida's second infamous elections debacle since 2000?

There will be plenty of blame to go around, especially when Miami-Dade County finally finishes counting provisional ballots and gets to the bottom of who declined to shore up voting operations, and when. But blame will also likely fall on conservative state legislators, who fought for two years to reduce the number of early voting days and limit registration after heavy 2008 turnout in the state for Democrats.

Continue reading "10 Florida Republicans face blame for recent voting issues" »