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" »

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