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Hands tied, ethics panel begs lawmakers for reform

The Florida Commission on Ethics will ask the Legislature for the authority to impose higher fines on public officials who flout the rules and the teeth to go after those that don't pay up.

The frustrated panel, which penalizes public officials who break ethics laws, is unable to collect about $100,000 in unpaid fines due to a law that prevents it from enforcing fines after four years.

Incoming Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, has publicly touted the need for ethics reform, sparking hope that next year's legislative session might yield stronger laws. 

Ethics reform is consistently shut down by lawmakers, some of whom owe fines and benefit from keeping conflict-of-interest laws weak.

Case in point: Commissioners expressed frustration that they can no longer go after Rep. Erik Fresen, a Miami Republican who still owes a $1,500 fine from 2004.

"Any elected official who owes a fine and doesn't pay, ought to be embarrassed about it," said Commissioner Linda Robison, a Pompano Beach attorney.

Among the public officials who have evaded ethics fines for more than four years are Casandra Robinson of the Broward County School Board, Anastasia Garcia of the Dade-County Board of Rules and Appeals, South Bay City Commissioner John Wilson and Fort Lauderdale City Commissioner Carmen Garcia.

The panel, concerned about the ever-growing pot of uncollectable fines, considered writing off the lost money, but opted to keep it on the books to help persuade lawmakers of the need for reform.

"You're telling me a city commissioner in Lauderdale Lakes has a $3,000 fine and we're going to write it off? Is that what I'm going to understand?" said Commissioner Morgan Bentley, referring to Eric Haynes, whose fines are pending from 2005 and 2006. "I will never vote to write off fines."

The Commission will also ask the Legislature to raise the limit on penalties from $10,000 to $25,000.

The Commission's "wish list" includes 13 proposals, but the panelists agreed the chances of success with the Legislature will be better if they lobby heaviest about the fines.

"I don't want to be turned down en masse," said Commissioner Matthew Carlucci.

Lower priorities include the authority for the Commission to launch its own investigations without a citizen complaint and a proposed conflict-of-interest law to prevent lawmakers from voting, or seeking to influence votes, when they might personally benefit.

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