September 26, 2012

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

February 17, 2012

FL among the most corrupt states: study

Federal prosecutors convict an average of 49 Florida public officials per year, making it the fourth most corrupt state, according to a University of Illinois at Chicago study.

Florida ranks number eight in corruption convictions per capita, mainly stemming from crimes like bribery, extortion, conspiracy or tax fraud, the study shows. The data was obtained from the U.S. Department of Justice.

The study's biggest weakness, said co-author James Nowlan, is that more aggressive district courts might yield more convictions regardless of crime levels. Researchers tried to account for that by including data from over 35 years.

"Certain jurisdictions seemed likely to have been more corrupt than others," he said. "We thought we'd take as systematic a look at this as we could."

February 14, 2012

Senators vote against chairman on ethics bill

Lawmakers who also work with the state university system won't have to chose between jobs after an ethics bill died in the Senate today.

SB 1560, which would have prevented lawmakers from working with or contracting with state colleges or universities, was voted down 6-6 in the Senate Rules Committee despite the fact that Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, the sponsor of the bill, is the committee chair.

Thrasher said he considered postponing the vote on the bill, but decided to let the bill die if other lawmakers didn’t think it was worthwhile.

Continue reading "Senators vote against chairman on ethics bill" »

January 03, 2012

Ex-Rep. Peterman faces fine, censure

Former state Rep. Frank Peterman's ethics troubles are deepening. The former St. Petersburg lawmaker, who served as state juvenile justice secretary under former Gov. Charlie Crist, should be fined $5,000 and face a public censure and reprimand, a state judge has decided.

Peterman, 49, opted to challenge a probable cause finding by the Commission on Ethics that he corruptly violated the ethics laws by racking up tens of thousands of dollars' worth of trips between his state office in Tallahassee and his home in St. Petersburg, where he also served as a church pastor. But after hearing two days of testimony in November, state Administrative Law Judge Susan Belyeu Kirkland concluded that Peterman broke the law. She issued her decision on Dec. 30.

"Mr. Peterman used his position as secretary of DJJ to travel to his primary residence at state expense when there was no state purpose for the travel," the judge wrote in an 18-page opinion. "Such actions show that he corruptly used his position to get home at state expense."

Peterman's attorney,  Mark Herron, called the ruling "an injustice," noting that Peterman has already reimbursed the state treasury for his questionable travel. Herron said Peterman likely would appeal the judge's decision. "It's totally unjust," he said. The Peterman saga began with this Times/Herald report more than two years ago.

-- Steve Bousquet

April 04, 2011

Senate vote-conflict bill 'doesn't go far enough'

Prompted by a scathing grand jury report on public corruption, a Senate committee on Monday passed a bill that expands the definition of a voting conflict for state legislators. The bill (SB 2088) would prohibit a legislator from casting a vote on legislation "that would inure to his or her special private gain or loss" of the legislator or an employer, relative, business associate, or board upon which the official sits. Current law requires such conflicts to be disclosed, but members can still vote.

The Senate Rules Subcommittee on Ethics and Elections passed the bill 11-0. Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who handled the bill in committee, acknowledged a stronger law is needed. "We need to increase the standard. It probably doesn't go far enough," Thrasher said. 

Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, who voted yes, said it was still too weak because it still allows lawmakers with conflicts to participate behind the scenes to influence the direction of a bill or to engage in "arm-twisting." Dockery's bill (SB 86) contains that language, but it is not likely to pass.  "To restore faith and trust in government, I think, is very important," Dockery said. "It probably doesn't go far enough but it is a good first step."

-- Steve Bousquet

March 30, 2011

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.

Continue reading "Ethics law moves in Senate, after rocky debate" »

December 08, 2010

Ethics Panel: DJJ secretary "corruptly" travelled, Rep. Jenne was sloppy

The Florida Commission on Ethics recently released its probable-cause findings, which determined that Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Frank Peterman "corruptly misused his position or DJJ resources to allow himself to incur excessive travel costs between St. Petersburg and Tallahassee which he charged to the State." The stories about Peterman's travel and travails are herehere and here.

And then there's the curious case of Rep. Evan Jenne, who might be the first legislator to actually overstate his wealth in his financial disclosure forms by prematurely reporting income from a consulting firm before he earned the cash. That was the subject of a multi-pronged ethics complaint filed against him in 2009 by opponent Christ Chiari. Most of the complaint was thrown out. But Jenne was a little sloppy when it came to detailing his art-and-sports-memorabilia assets. So the ethics commission found that he failed to "fully disclose assets on his 2007 Form 6 as required by the Florida Constitution. However, because the assets were sports memorabilia and a painting that were kept at his parents' home, the Commission will not take further action on the charge unless Jenne requests a hearing."

 We doubt he will.

September 22, 2010

Democrats play the culture of corruption card

Florida Democrats are planning nearly 100 events across the state on Sunday to warn voters of what Democrat Alex Sink’s gubernatorial campaign manager Jim Cassady said in an e-mail to supporters were "bold face lies" coming from Republican Rick Scott. (Sounds like the "lies" refer to Scott's latest ad.)

FDP-1


The door knocking and phone calling will be made on behalf of the Democrat’s slate of statewide candidates as part of a day-long effort Democrats are calling “Knock Out Republican Corruption Day.” The slick campaign literature offers head shots of the Democratic candidates while referencing the arrest of former Florida Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer, the indictment of former House Speaker Ray Sansom, the credit card questions facing GOP U.S. Senate nominee Marco Rubio and the Medicare fraud that took place at Scott’s former hospital company.

Democrats hope they can avoid the wave of conservatism in nearly every state in the country by turning the Republicans' troubles into a motivation tool for their grassroots base. Of course, Republican gubernatorial hopeful Bill McCollum wrongly thought his grassroots effort would make him the outlier in the trend of establishment candidates losing to political outsiders.

Says the Scott campaign: “Of course the Sink campaign is downplaying her role in the SBA debacle and how much was lost; this is a typical insider who knows she has failed but refuses to accept the her failure. As a former banker and current Chief Financial Officer, Alex Sink’s oversight of the SBA raises serious questions on integrity and competence.”

May 18, 2010

Rentboy scandal: Florida Democrats demand McCollum return $120,000 paid to George Rekers

Just received from the Florida Democratic Party:

In light of Attorney General Bill McCollum's role in spending over $120,000 in taxpayer money on hiring discredited witness George Rekers, today Florida Democratic Party Chair Karen Thurman demanded McCollum pay back the State of Florida for the full cost of the funds he steered towards the so-called 'expert' embroiled in the "Rentboy scandal."

Click here to read Thurman's letter to McCollum

April 27, 2010

Sansom gets love in House farewells

The members of the House's "senior class" are giving farewell speeches in the final two weeks. Beyond the abhorrent length of the goodbye remarks, it's interesting to note one name that keeps getting mentioned: former Speaker Ray Sansom.

Sansom, a Destin Republican, resigned earlier this year under the weight of a criminal probe and ethics complaint into his secret budget projects. The criminal indictment of Sansom condemned the legislative process as a whole for its secrecy and the influence of special interests.

But apparently some lawmakers see it differently. Reps. Juan Zapata, Mary Bradenburg and Baxter Troutman all thanked Sansom for his leadership and friendship. It's striking given that most House members were reluctant to defend Sansom as the criminal investigation unfolded.

On Tuesday, Troutman, a Winter Haven Republican, called the Sansom scandal an "unnecessary witch hunt."