March 19, 2010

House dismisses rules complaint against Saunders

An rules complaint against state Rep. Ron Saunders, a leading Democrat from Key West, was dismissed by the House Rules Chairman Bill Galvano this week.

Tea Party activist James K. Barnes filed the rules complaint and two ethics complaints against Saunders earlier this month.

Galvano said the complaint was insufficient because it wasn't made under oath, didn't meet time limits and provided inadequate evidence.

March 18, 2010

House GOP votes against disclosing credit card purchases

House Republicans just voted down an amendment to a campaign finance bill that would have required leadership funds to file reports showing each credit card purchase. The language -- which is the source of much recent controversy -- was tucked at the end of an amendment, offered by Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, a Sarasota Democrat. It failed on a party line vote 42-69.

UPDATED 11:15 a.m.: The House passed the bill 73-42 after the GOP leadership withstood a dozen amendments offered by Democrats to provide more transparency and limit the influence of money. Despite this, Republican supporters labeled the measure (HB1207) a "transparency" measure and refuted that it created leadership funds -- until Democrat Rep. Rick Kriseman read the old law and the new law, showing them identical. Three GOP lawmakers did defect from the party-line debate to vote for an amendment that would have required callers conducting push-polls to identify their organization.

March 03, 2010

Leadership funds begin to re-emerge

With all the problems in how political parties spend money, top Florida lawmakers are one step closer to getting the power to raise unlimited contributions and direct how the money is spent.

But don't call them leadership funds -- which were previously banished -- call them APCs. (Yes, one more acronym in a town that speaks only in capital letters.) It stands for affiliated party committees, which is, in essence, a leadership fund.

The language creating these APCs is attached to a bill that fixes the law concerning ECOs -- Electioneering Communication Organizations -- which was struck down in a court decision as unconstitutional. Without regulation, we are currently in "the wild wild West," said bill sponsor Rep. Seth McKeel, a Lakeland Republican, pointing to the recent special election in the Jacksonville area. 

Continue reading "Leadership funds begin to re-emerge" »

February 22, 2010

John Thrasher's goodbye RPOF Amex Gift

So before a conflict of interest could arise, St. Augustine Sen. John Thrasher stepped down from chairman of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee when he was chosen as the head of the Republican Party of Florida this Saturday.

But three days before he left the Senate post, Thrasher presided over the committee when it gave RPOF (and anyone else with a political credit card) a nice fat gift: A clear exemption from having to report "a copy of each credit card statement which shall be included in the next [campaign finance]report..." [paren mine].

That language actually exists in statute. Thrasher's committee bill strikes it out.

But it was already nullified by a curious 2005 Division of Elections opinion that essentially said "each credit card statement" didn't need to be "included" because because it would be too difficult to include the statements via the state's electronic campaign-finance filing system. Apparently, the government system didn't have a function to accept PDFs. Yeah, PDFs are so hard to post.

Like this one: Download De0507.

It's the actual division opinion in question that you, dear viewer, are seeing electronically and that we downloaded from the division's own website. Whodathunk? Interestingly, it was the Florida Democrats who set this all in motion by actually requesting the division opinion. And it's not as if all the credit card information isn't online; the parties report aggregate sums in their expenditures on the division's website and list other expenses under the tab "other disbursements." Still, the actually credit-card bills don't line up with the reported totals.(The committee packet is here and the language in question is on page 196 of 207, or page 33 of 44 of the bill).

Anyway, lawmakers never raised a stink about an executive order from an appointed official trumping the plain language of state statute. So the political parties were free to just report aggregate sums, and not the "individual" reports.

Then came Ray Sansom's shopping spree and Delmar Johnson's spending binge at RPOF on the party's American Express cards.

**Update: Thrasher said this blog post unfairly ascribed "scurrilous motives" to him. "I take offense," Thrasher said.

He said the bill wasn't his. Rather, it was Secretary of State Kurt Browning's bill. Asked if he could have changed the language in question, Thrasher said members of the Legislature could change it if they wished. He said the language was "a technical change." 

Asked if he supported the language ensuring that political parties wouldn't have to disclosure the individual credit-card bills, Thrasher changed the subject to his amendment that helped disabled voters. Now that he's party chair, does he support releasing the credit card bills of yore? Thrasher said he'd decide later.

Q: Do you realize you haven't answered the question and that this will be reflected -- just a heads up?

A: "I have plenty of heads-ups these days. I have to go," Thrasher said.

The two men who pushed Thrasher to become RPOF chair, future House Speaker Dean Cannon and Senate President Mike Haridopolos, have both said the problems at RPOF have underscored the need for more "transparency." Both have refused to release their statements or call on others to do so. Senate President Jeff Atwater is waffling as he, too, talks about the need for more "transparency."

Transparent indeed.

January 27, 2010

Crist appoints 3 to Commission on Ethics

Gov. Charlie Crist on Wednesday made three appointments to the nine-member Commission on Ethics, the agency that is asking the Legislature for more authority to investigate ethical wrongdoing by public officials. 

These picks have been a long time in coming: their terms expired seven months ago, in June of 2009.

Crist reappointed Roy Rogers, 72, of Lighthouse Point and named two new members: retiree Ivan Ford, 73, of Vero Beach succeeds Linda Conahan, a lawyer from Boca Raton, and Crist replaced Larry Handfield of Miami with Susan Maurer, 53, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer. Maurer is a law partner of Tom Panza, a well- known lobbyist and Democratic fund-raiser for many years in Tallahassee.

A fourth lame-duck ethics commissioner, Albert Massey of Fort Lauderdale, remains on the panel. Massey and Michael Joblove of Cooper City bring to four the number of ethics commissioners who live in Broward, currently viewed by many as Florida's most ethically-challenged county. 

-- Steve Bousquet

December 14, 2009

Toothless ethics commission is seeking fangs

Criticized as a toothless tiger, the Commission on Ethics wants more authority to investigate and punish wayward officials in Florida.

The watchdog agency wants to seize the moment at a time when a string of scandals has seized public attention and a statewide grand jury is launching a major public corruption inquiry.

But only the Legislature can expand or restrict the commission's powers. Legislators have long been wary of giving the agency more clout, partly out of a fear that it would lead to witch hunts aimed at lawmakers themselves. Read story here.

October 07, 2009

Thrasher will lead Senate's ethics and elections committee

Former House Speaker and lobbyist John Thrasher, who last night officially won the special election to fill the Jacksonville seat long held by the late Sen. Jim King, just got his committee assignments.

The most notable: He will chair the Senate's ethics and elections committee, which deals with election laws and conduct standards for elections officials. The committee also plays a pivotal role in confirming -- or denying -- the appointments by the governor to agencies like the Public Service Commission.

Many of Gov. Charlie Crist's most recent appointees have not yet been confirmed by the committee, after  former chairman Sen. J.D. Alexander (not exactly Crist's best bud) claimed the committee ran out of time during the spring session.

Thrasher, most recently a lobbyist for Southern Strategies, was found guilty in 2001 of violating ethics law by inviting lobbyists to a lunch before he was cleared to lobby.

September 28, 2009

Amid racist flier inquiry, Morgan ponders trial bar lobby exit

John Morgan, trial lawyer bigwig of Morgan & Morgan fame, is real close to quitting the Florida Justice Association (the lobby group for Florida trial lawyers) because of its admitted involvement in the recent distribution of a racially charged campaign flier.

But after urging from Morgan & Morgan attorney and black caucus member Rep. Darryl Rouson, Morgan told the Times/Herald he has agreed to hold off his decision until the conclusion of an investigation being conducted by former Supreme Court justice Gerald Kogan.

"The key for me is, did anyone in our organization see that piece before it went out? If they did they should have been raising holy hell, they should have called a press conference to denounce it," Morgan said. "I want to know, did someone in our organization, in the fever to win, give up all that we stand for and all of our principles?"

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September 11, 2009

Fasano to PSC chair: Suspend utility rate hearings

Sen. Mike Fasano, outspoken in recent weeks about the PSC uproar over lobbyists at utility execs' houses and PSC staffers exchanging Blackberry PIN numbers, just sent a letter to PSC chair Matt Carter asking that hearings for proposed rate hikes for FPL and Progress be "suspended immediately." Fasano, R-New Port Richey, says the PSC should not be deciding on the utilities' requested rate hikes until investigations into the recent controversy are complete.

Read it here:

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April 04, 2009

Ethics-related forms tough to find

Want to find a financial disclosure form for your mayor? Trying to investigate whether your county commissioner has disclosed any recent conflicts of interest? Curious about whether a city commissioner has disclosed some pricey freebies from developers?

You better be ready to do some good old-fashioned telephone dialing and probably drive around to various government offices to check out the documents.

Although government agencies have vastly expanded what they put online -- lengthy budget documents, decades of minutes and in Coral Gables even a video showing residents how to drive through a traffic circle -- they have avoided putting documents online that are about elected officials' finances. Government agencies say they get too many and that it would be difficult to do, but is that just an excuse?

Read more here: