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Five candidates get free pass for mistakes in disclosing finances

The Florida Commission on Ethics issued separate orders Wednesday finding that five current and former state lawmakers -- including former State Senator Ronda Storms -- filed incomplete financial disclosures last year.

But because the candidates filed amended disclosure forms that investigators determined were complete, the Commission decided to take no further action.

Storms, a former Hillsborough County Commissioner who served in the state senate from 2006 to 2012, was flagged when she filed a disclosure form on her 2011 income when she ran for Hillsborough County Property Appraiser last year.

Eugene Benson, an 82-year-old Vero Beach resident, filed that complaint against Storms, alleging four violations: 18 cents she reported as income was “contrived”, that she didn’t list all the properties she owned, she didn’t specifically describe her assets, and she didn’t list secondary income derived from a landscaping business.

Investigators found only that Storms didn’t specify her assets. She affixed a value of  $10,248 to “cash checking savings” and a value of $18,840 to “prepaid college.”

Storms told investigators that she should have described the savings as deposited with Suncoast Schools Federal Credit Union and the other asset as “Florida prepaid college fund.” She filed an amended disclosure, but the Commission stated that the initial omission “deprived” the public of information it was entitled to.

On Wednesday, Storms said knew about the complaint, but not about the order issued by the Commission that no further action would be taken.

Initially, Storms said, she was “chagrined that they would spend the time to investigate this.” But she learned that she had made this omission before, and wanted to cooperate with investigators.

“If they want me to write ‘Florida prepaid college’, I will write ‘Florida prepaid college’,” she said. “If they want me to write ‘Tropical Florida,’ I’ll write ‘Tropical Florida.’”

Storms, who strongly criticized her GOP primary opponent, former appraiser Rob Turner, for filing incomplete disclosures, said she recognized the importance of complete disclosures. But she also likened the complaint by Benson, who she said she didn’t know, to a fishing expedition.

Benson couldn’t be reached at his Vero Beach home. But his complaint does raise questions about the motivations of ethics complaints. Benson also filed complaints against former Rep. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Gainesville, and Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach. The Commission on Ethics ruled that in each case, the no further action was necessary because the candidate filed a more complete disclosure this year -- after the election.

The Commission concluded that Wise failed to disclose the addresses to his Jacksonville home and Orange Park condo, despite instructions to the contrary. Wise, a longtime lawmaker, told investigators he failed to read the instructions. Investigators also found that he incorrectly reported the money he made in rent from the condo.

Baxley failed to specify assets and liabilities of more than $1,000 in his 2011 disclosure, the commission concluded. But his corrections hardly shed more light. His 2011 disclosure is still vague. Baxley, who lists a net income of $5.5 million, describes one asset valued at $410,000 as “notes receivables.” An asset of $2.2 million is described as “not-readily marketable securities.” A $15,772 liability is described as “bills payable.”

Adkins didn’t provide adequate descriptions to her assets (identifying one as “Credit Union Accounts - $50,000).

The Commission on Ethics also ruled in a similar fashion on Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Boca Raton. It found that she didn’t properly disclose a condo unit, income from her job as a lawmaker, and her net worth for 2008, 2009, and 2010. The complaint was filed by Sid Dinerstein, the GOP chairman of Palm Beach County. The order finding probable cause on Wednesday concluded that she corrected the mistakes, and like with the four Republican candidates, no further action would be taken.

Wednesday’s orders hardly moved in the direction of accountability by forcing candidates to accurately describe their income to the public, which is crucial for a Legislature that pays more than $29,000, hardly a living wage.

And thanks to SB 2, which lawmakers passed this session, candidates will have a longer grace period to fix mistakes.