July 30, 2014

Rep. Grant the winner in Florida ethics commission ruling

In a closed-door session, the Florida Commission on Ethics ruled in favor of Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa, after an investigation into whether he misused his position to benefit a company that allegedly funded a grant awarded to his personal business venture.

The nine-member panel also decided there was no probable cause concerning an allegation that Grant had a conflict when he voted on legislation that related to excise taxes on phosphate mining.

The decision was announced Wednesday after the commission's investigator spent more than a year examining a complicated case stemming from complaints filed by Henry Kuhlman, a retired military pilot from Hardee County.

"My reaction is that they missed the mark and politics are involved," Kuhlman said.

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March 26, 2014

Senate passes bill banning local officials from moonlight as legislative lobbyists

Former Senate President Ken Pruitt is among an elite group of people.

He is not only one of a handful of legislators who have held the coveted job of Senate president, he is also one of a handful of people being targeted by a high-priority ethics bill passed unanimously Wednesday by the Florida Senate.

Pruitt served as Senate president from 2006 to 2008 but, like many former legislators, parlayed his clout as a top-dog lawmaker into a high paying career as a lobbyist. He has 15 clients, including Florida Crystals Corp. and the Palm Beach County sheriff’s office, and his firm has reportedly earned as much as $150,00 a year in lobbying fees from Florida Crystals alone.

Pruitt’s full-time job, however, is serving as St. Lucie County’s elected property appraiser, a position that increases the value of the retirement benefits he earned as a long-time legislator.

Under the bill (CS/SB 846) the Senate passed, Pruitt and other constitutional officers – such as sheriffs, state attorneys and property appraisers – would be banned from lobbying for compensation. The restriction does not take effect until after the next election so Pruitt buys some time. His term ends in 2016.

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February 07, 2014

Special districts handle millions but lobbyists are shielded from disclosure rules

By Dan Christensen

Nearly 1,000 special-purpose governments across Florida that raise and spend billions of dollars in public funds every year do not require lobbyists who appear before them to register, pay fees or disclose any information about themselves or their clients.

Lobbyist registration and disclosure has been mandatory for years in Tallahassee and in many city and county halls across the state, where lawmakers found it necessary to preserve the integrity of the decision-making process. Violators can be fined and barred from lobbying for up to two years.

But Florida’s independent special districts are a separate class of government — a hodgepodge of obscure taxing and other authorities that, with few exceptions, offer the public no information about lobbyists or what they’re up to at their agencies.

BrowardBulldog.org, supported by a grant from the Washington-based Fund for Investigative Journalism, spent months documenting that sweeping lack of government accountability, a free ride enjoyed by lobbyists at independent special districts around Florida with the power to tax, assess fees and/or sell low-interest bonds to finance government spending. Story here. 



September 20, 2013

Lobbying group wants a say in auditing process

With a joint legislative committee planning to discuss auditing lobbying firm compensation on Monday, the organization that represents Florida lobbyists has asked to add its voice to the discussion.  

In a letter to Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, the board of directors for the Florida Association of Professional Lobbyists, requested that the group be allowed to "provide input and offer our assistance."  Download FAPL lobby comp ltr-4 (1)

The letter also states that the association's 350 members "have gone above and beyond what is required by Florida law and created and pledged to abide by a self-imposed code of conduct that is signed by and adhered to by each member of our organization." 

State law requires lobbying firms to file quarterly reports that list dollar ranges for how much they pay each client , but a requirement that reports get audited has never been enforced.

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April 08, 2013

Expert: Ethics bill's 'blind trust' provision would 'blind the public' but protect officials

Tucked into a bill hailed by Senate leaders as the “most sweeping ethics reform” in decades is a provision that could shield elected officials from disclosing conflicts of interest or questionable assets.

Under SB 2, which passed the Senate on the first day of the legislative session, any public official who wants to avoid disclosing embarrassing financial information on their financial disclosure forms could create a blind trust to hold their assets.

“This really would be a wolf in sheep’s clothing,’’ said Phil Claypool, the former director of the Florida Ethics Commission who retired last year. “The whole idea is to protect both the public official and the public from conflicts of interest” but under the Senate bill “you’ve just got room for all kinds of mischief.’’

The Senate bill — for the first time in Florida — provides for “blind trusts” for elected officials and was promoted as a way to help public officials “avoid potential conflicts of interest” by allowing them to hand off responsibility for investing their assets to a trustee. The idea is that an elected official would be “blind” to what he owned because the trustee would be banned from disclosing how the assets are invested.

The measure is part of a larger ethics reform package that includes new laws that would force public officials to disclose conflicts and face new restrictions on who they can work for while in office or when they retire from office.

But Claypool believes that the Senate bill essentially “stands the concept of a ‘blind trust’ on its head’’ by creating a “cloak of invisibility” in which elected officials simply “pay a lawyer to draw up a trust” and hide behind it. Story here. 


March 27, 2013

Digital Domain CEO hits back at damning IG report, blames Scott-Crist politics

Digital Domain debacle, take two.

The former CEO of Digital Domain is hitting back with an alternative script after an Inspector General report slammed the process that helped the now-defunct Port St. Lucie film studio get $20 million in taxpayer grants. 

John Textor said the claim by Gov. Rick Scott and Enterprise Florida that the Digital Domain deal was some kind of widely discredited proposal that had been blacklisted by Enterprise Florida, only to be slipped into the budget later by aggressive lawmakers and Gov. Charlie Crist—is complete fiction.

In fact, Textor said, Enterprise Florida actually recommended that Florida taxpayers chip in about $11.4 million to help Digital Domain bring jobs to the state.

An email Textor provided to the Herald/Times shows that an Enterprise Florida representative wrote Textor on March 18, 2009, saying that the organization would “present to [the Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development] relative to a one-time award of $6.1 million” and other awards for a “total potential FL economic incentive package” of $11.4 million. The email, not included in the IG report, said Digital Domain would be required to create 300 jobs. 

EFI never went through with a recommendation to OTTED (which is required for  economic incentives grants to be awarded), but Textor has a very different explanation for why that did not happen.

According to Enterprise Florida’s account, the organization refused to support funding because Digital Domain’s finances were “extremely weak” and its business model was suspect.  Textor has a different story, and questions Enterprise Florida’s credibility by pointing out that the organization believed Digital Domain’s business plan was strong enough to receive an $11.4 million incentives package. 

Textor believes that he and others are being thrown under the bus as a way for Gov. Rick Scott to attack the Crist administration, which was in charge when Digital Domain received funding by getting special language tacked onto the state's budget.

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March 19, 2013

House revises its ethics bill, allows for revolving door lobbying of exec branch

The Florida House Subcommittee on Ethics unanimously agreed to make some revisions to its high profile ethics bill on Tuesday, tightening some rules and loosening others. The biggest change: exempting all legislators from the two-year ban on executive branch lobbyists except the House speaker and the Senate president. 

The decision to allow legislators who leave office to return the next year to lobby the governor and executive branch underscores the delicate dance legislators engage in. Many of them run for office to serve the public and others use the process as a ticket to lobbying.

A Herald/Times report found that as the state's budget has increasingly become dependent on steering contracts to private sector vendors, the size of the lobbying corps has exploded. There are now more people registered to lobby the governor, the Cabinet and their agencies — 4,925 — than there are registered to lobby the 160-member Legislature — 3,235.

The House bill adopts much of the Senate bill which passed the Senate on the first day of session, but makes some significant changes. 

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March 18, 2013

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

March 08, 2013

Gov. Rick Scott's bold ethics reform promise: stalled or dropped?

Long before the Legislature saw the need for new ethics laws, Gov. Rick Scott made a bold commitment to fight public corruption.

But he hasn’t followed through.

On his first day in office in 2011, Scott issued an executive order that preserved an Office of Open Government and added a new code of conduct for everyone working for him that in some areas was stricter than state law.

The order also directed Scott’s then-special counsel, Hayden Dempsey, to study a fresh statewide grand jury report on public corruption and push parts of it through the Legislature. But nothing came of it, even though Scott demanded in his campaign in 2010 that he be held accountable for his promises.

“This was a promise of the governor,” said Dan Krassner of Integrity Florida. “Florida needs Gov. Scott’s leadership on ethics reform.”

Two years later, the grand jury’s recommendations on what it called “an enormous issue, which is broad in scope and long in history” are still not law, though parts are in an ethics bill that passed the Senate Tuesday. More from Steve Bousquet here. 

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.