Tallahassee's conflicted interests 

Why real ethics reform will never happen in Florida

On Nov. 20, as the sun rose on a new class of legislators in Tallahassee anticipating next spring's session, a wash of symbolic altruism showered down directly from the leadership. It wasn't intended to be an orientation-day pep talk, but rather something more substantial: a call to arms to combat how wrong things have gone in recent years for the state's often shambolic legislative branch. What's more, things were about to change.

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, took the floor and addressed the incoming class of state officials. "In my medium-sized North Florida county, a commissioner was just removed for official misconduct, the tourism director committed suicide after he stole bed tax and BP money, the speaker of the House was forced to resign, the tax collector was run out of office, our college president was fired and our sheriff is in federal prison," he said. "That's just my county."

Specifically, Gaetz, who hails from Okaloosa County, was referring to the following: the September arrest of Okaloosa County Commissioner James Campbell by the Florida Department of Law enforcement on four counts of official misconduct and four counts of perjury stemming from income he received for recruiting sponsors for a local festival without truthfully disclosing that income to the Florida Commission on Ethics; former Okaloosa tourism official Mark Bellinger, who killed himself amid allegations that he had skimmed $1.4 million from his job – which included handling post-BP oil spill funds – to purchase a mansion and a yacht; former Speaker of the House Ray Sansom, who stepped down after allegedly steering $36 million to Northwest Florida State College in exchange for a $110,000-a-year job (among other calamities); that college's president, Bob Richburg, who was fired after attempting to accept $6 million in state taxpayer dollars via Sansom for a private airplane hangar; and former Okaloosa Sheriff Charlie Morris, who was arrested and convicted in 2009 on federal fraud and money laundering charges.

It was time, according to Gaetz, to clean house. The Senate immediately adopted new rules that would bar senators from voting on bills involving conflicts of interest and force one hour of ethics training on incoming members of the legislative body. Across the capitol building in the House chambers, where similar conflict-of-interest rules were already in place, incoming Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, broadened his shoulders and the ethics argument to include bipartisan efforts and election reform, specifically addressing campaign finance, which has grown into its own intractable game of hide-the-money via secretive electioneering committees.

Initial signs from government watchdog groups and legislators alike indicate cautious optimism about state government reforming itself, regardless of the fact that ethics reform has been an ongoing joke – and a sponsored bill, in one form or another, destined to die before hitting the floor – for years. But one moment of press-released integrity will have a hard time erasing decades of learned behavior, and published reports rank Florida No. 1 in instances of public corruption.

One year ago, amid a flurry of accusations of conflicts of interest involving cozy relationships between for-profit charter schools and legislators, Gaetz sounded softer on the issue when talking to the Tampa Bay Times, advocating for disclosure and avoidance of conflict of interest, but arguing that sometimes legislators – especially in a part-time body of officials with private-sector jobs – are the best to turn to on the issues involving their professions. According to the Times, "He also cautioned against 'selective indignation,'" apparently signaling that the conflict and the interest aren't always what they seem. The fact remains that these so-called ethics problems may not be so easy to address when the people presenting the problems are simultaneously charged with addressing them. It's tough to be your own enforcement.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Florida led all of the other states in the country in federal public corruption convictions between 2000 and 2010, with 781 cases. But that number doesn't paint the full picture of the problem that plagues the state.

In January, former Florida Chamber of Commerce chief strategy and communications officer Dan Krassner launched an intentionally nonpartisan research institute called Integrity Florida. Bringing together former politicians, newspaper editors, Tea Party leaders, activists and attorneys, the group has spent the entirety of the year compiling reports on Florida's tendencies toward corruption in an effort to convince the state legislature that reform is necessary. Ben Wilcox, the group's research director, is encouraged by the recent pronouncements coming from House and Senate leadership.

"I would say it's much more than I've ever seen," Wilcox says. "I've never seen this kind of momentum on ethics reform or campaign finance reform coming from the lips of the leadership when we're going into a legislative session. They really made some promises that I think they've got to deliver on."

But he also suggests that some of Florida's apparent ethics problem could come from the sheer size of the state.

"Florida is one of the biggest states in the country, so that's an obvious reason. There's a lot of opportunity for mischief here," Wilcox says. (Indeed, the Sunshine State exceeds the country's most populous states, California, Texas and New York, in federal corruption convictions.)

The group has taken most of its cues from the "State Integrity Investigation" released by the Center for Public Integrity and Public Radio International in March. The groups examined corruption risk based on 14 categories of transparency – including lobbying disclosure, internal auditing and judicial accountability – and gave Florida an overall grade of C-, ranking it 18th best among the other states in the nation. That report found that, although Florida has a history of promoting transparency – specifically, the 1967 Sunshine Law regarding open public meetings and the 1976 Sunshine Amendment, which required financial disclosures from public officials and established the Florida Commission on Ethics – the current lobbying morass and absence of real enforcement have made that history superficial. The State Integrity Investigation gave Florida an F for its ethics enforcement.

Integrity Florida's research points to the root of the problem. Among the findings in its July Corruption Risk Report: Financial Disclosure study: 11 state legislators worked for lobbying firms in 2012, 12 legislators disclosed a total of 33 voting conflicts of interest, more than $100,000 in gifts were reported by legislators and top state officials, thousands of public officials didn't even file disclosures, and nearly $90,000 in fines for failing to file disclosures was owed to the state by 66 current and former public officials.

In contrast, a report released by Integrity Florida in tandem with Florida State University's LeRoy Collins Institute in November showed that counties were being forced to pick up the slack on ethics reform and enforcement. Palm Beach County, where four commissioners served prison time for corruption convictions in 2007, launched its own ethics commission in 2010 and rewrote its ethics code the following year. Why? Because the state's ethics commission is generally regarded as toothless, especially considering that its nine-member board is appointed by the governor, the speaker of the House and the Senate president.

"Basically what we've found is that the state ethics laws have been essentially frozen in time since 1976 when Gov. [Reubin] Askew led the effort to pass the Sunshine Amendment and the ethics commission was established," Wilcox says. "Essentially since 1976, the ethics laws haven't been updated."

Violations of the state's code of ethics, written into the Florida Constitution in 1968, haven't been subject to criminal penalties since 1974. Instead, the commission is limited to civil prosecution – fines, effectively – that add up to slaps on wrists. There's also no authority to collect those fines, short of utilizing collection agencies until the fines expire after four years.

"We can't send people to jail," says Florida Commission on Ethics spokeswoman Kerri Stillman, adding that lumping the cases the commission hears with those of the Department of Justice is "comparing apples to oranges."

In its 2011 report, the commission says that "of the 169 complaints received in 2011, 68 were dismissed for lack of legal sufficiency; two were dismissed because they were received within five days of an election; 77 were ordered to be investigated; 21 were pending legal sufficiency determination at the end of the year; and one was on hold for criminal investigation."

Annually, the ethics commission attempts to strengthen its authority, but because those attempts are mitigated by legislative votes, they haven't succeeded in more than a decade. This year, the commission is hoping to gain the ability to initiate investigations on its own – presently, a public complaint has to be filed – and to make its fines more punitive.

"Well, it's too soon to tell what sort of changes that might take place. The commission has sought changes in the past," Stillman says. "We'll just have to wait and see."

A criminal investigation doesn't always mean a victory for integrity, however. After he resigned from both his Speaker of the House gig and his six-figure job at Northwestern Florida State College in disgrace, Ray Sansom's criminal charges were dropped by state prosecutor Willie Meggs in 2011. Sansom has since filed suit against the state for the cost of the litigation to the tune of $817,518.73.

"That tells you something right there," Wilcox says. "You're saying that's not a crime? To steer money to a college in your district and then take over a $100,000 job as you're sworn in a speaker and $6 million to build an airplane hangar for your biggest donor, that's not a crime? Maybe we should take some action [and] open up the budget process so that one person can't slip money into a budget and nobody knows it's there."

As the state government currently ponders its projected $437 million budget surplus, a $4.5 million website designed to allow the public nearly unlimited access to the budgetary process is currently under threat of going dead over its $1 million annual licensing fee (though it's not currently accessible to the public). That website, Transparency 2.0 – which Integrity Florida and the First Amendment Foundation were recently given access to – was the product of a 2011 law mandating the governor's office to create it. The Senate funded it initially and handed it over to the governor's office, and now there's a dispute over how it will be maintained, according to a Miami Herald report. Ironically, the project only received one bid, a fact Integrity Florida's Dan Krassner told the newspaper "might be the rare exception to the rule where you have a patented technology no one else had."

But the apparent stall on this next step toward transparency comes as little surprise to Amy Ritter, research director for liberal watchdog group Florida Watch Action. The group monitors the governor's impact on the middle class and is responsible for the Pink Slip Rick campaign.

"I think a lot of legislators aren't used to organizations and people keeping a watchful eye during session when they're up in Tallahassee, far away, insulated, where there are more lobbyists than there are legislators," she says. "I think they've gotten away with a lot. And I think having a governor like Rick Scott has allowed them to get away with a lot over the past two years. They're just not used to having a spotlight shined on them up in the capitol."

Florida Watch Action, along with Progress Florida, launched the Adams Street Project (named after a popular thoroughfare in Tallahassee) during the 2012 legislative session in order to directly confront lawmakers on video, forcing them to explain some of their choices, predominantly on education spending and cuts. On one occasion, she says, state Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, knocked an Adams Street activist's camera out of his hand for asking whether the senator "cared about higher education" after voting on a budget that cut $259 million from the state's colleges.

An extensive Tampa Bay Times investigation in 2011 found that education concerns lie at the heart of much of Tallahassee's perceived corruption, even beyond the Sansom case. Specifically, Florida's leadership in the for-profit charter school boom has called the financial interests of many of the state's legislators into question.

State Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, served on the House K-20 Competitiveness Subcommittee and voted in favor of a bill that would make charter-school expansion easier in 2011. His sister is vice president of charter operation Academica, and would stand to profit from the legislation. A complaint was filed with the Florida Commission on Ethics citing Fresen's lack of disclosure, but he was absolved of any guilt.

Former state Rep. John Legg, R-New Port Richey, owned a charter school called Dayspring Academy and sought special treatment from the Pasco County School Board bypassing lottery requirement for kindergarten advancement in 2011. An outspoken advocate for charter school legislation – for obvious reasons – Legg was partially responsible for much of the pro-charter-school legislation passed throughout his eight years of public service. A complaint filed in 2010 alleging numerous conflicts involving Legg was dismissed by the ethics commission. Even current House Speaker Weatherford had his hands in the charter game, submitting his own application to open a charter school in Pasco County after voting in favor of Fresen's bill. The application was denied.

All of which makes this current slouch toward ethical reform that much more suspect for Ritter.

"Don Gaetz and Will Weatherford, they vote lock and step with the governor, and if they're getting their cues from Rick Scott, I would say that having a healthy level of skepticism is very much needed," she says. "These are legislators who make votes that are in clear conflicts of interest with their personal lives and their personal businesses. … We've heard this song and dance before."

To hear incoming legislators speak of it, the heralding of a new day for ethics in Tallahassee may not be all that it's cracked up to be. Beyond that first day of tone-setting oratory, other issues – controversial committee assignments, implementation of the Affordable Care Act and its required insurance exchanges, election reform – have cast a shadow over the singular idealism of a new brand of politics.

"It's hard to read right now, to be honest," says freshman state Rep. Joe Saunders, D-Orlando. "I don't get the sense that the Democratic caucus has a strong sense of what ethics reform is going to look like. What I think is meaningful is that you're hearing Gaetz and Weatherford talk about it.

"To me, what I hope is that as we explore what can very well be substantive reform around ethics, that we don't eclipse the need to have reform on our elections," he adds. "The fact that these two things are being connected right now, that's a serious concern."

Saunders, who sits on the board of Planned Parenthood of Greater Orlando and is a longtime political advocate for Equality Florida, isn't yet certain how his own professional interests will affect his duties. He's been assigned to three education committees and a health care-quality subcommittee, he says, some of which could produce some overlap. He's currently in discussions and "answering all the questions" about his relationships with both organizations, and will make the decision whether to sever ties when he knows more. "My hope is I'll continue to work with them," he says.

State Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando – a veteran of the House who was elected to the more powerful body this November – says that the new Senate rule barring votes on conflicts of interests is a good step. He alludes to a conflict between bicameral cousins state Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, and former state Rep. Baxter Troutman, R-Winter Haven, who, when voting on the SunRail deal with CSX Corp. transportation company in 2009, took different approaches to whether they should vote on it or not. Both had a family business interest in CSX via Phoenix Industries. Troutman abstained from voting and criticized Alexander for not doing the same. Now both houses will require disclosure.

"I think we have to start with what we're doing already, which is direct conflicts of interest," Soto says. "If something is going to benefit you or your family, that should be addressed. The indirect stuff is more difficult."

That nuanced gray area is has been the regular stomping ground of outgoing Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland. Dockery, who has served in the legislature for 16 years, has presented a conflict-of-interest bill five times – including the 2012 session – only to see it die in committee. She's also been a proponent of multiple other ethics reforms, including those involving budgetary accountability.

"What's happened in the past is that questionable things would appear in the budget, things like the Taj Mahal," she says, referring to a notorious $48 million appropriation for an extravagant courthouse in Tallahassee in 2007. "Somebody had to sit at a typewriter or keyboard and put it in. Things don't just magically appear. Anything that's of significance needs to have somebody's name attached to it."

But more often than not, Dockery would encounter the blank faces of politicians unwilling to admit their part in the spending process. For the most part, she lays the problem on the culture of getting away with it in Tallahassee. People don't mean to be "sneaky" – they just are. "At the very minimum, staff knows," she says. "There's an unwritten rule; common sense would dictate that your job is going to be on the line if you're chatty. They hold a lot of secrets."

Dockery says she'll continue to advocate from the private sector for public ethics reform, and she's publicly praised the efforts of Integrity Florida in her Florida Voices online column. Unlike many of her peers, she's not leaving office and falling into a high-paying job or a lobbying position. Former House Speakers Dean Cannon and Larry Cretul recently launched Capitol Insight LLC, a Tallahassee lobbying firm rumored to count the Florida Chamber of Commerce among its moneyed clientele. Dockery is reportedly retiring to spend more time with her family, though she seems to understand the temptation of career gain.

"That's kind of the problem," she says. "Florida is such a large state. We're part-time legislators making $29,000 a year, so the people who are running have to have another job or be involved in other arrangements. That opens it up to seeing these grand opportunities. If the salary were equivalent to a full-time position, then it would be a lot easier to not have these conflicts of interest."

As of now, nobody is proposing a raise.

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