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Remembered for his ethics and wit

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By MARTIN DYCKMAN, Times Associate Editor

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 28, 2002

TALLAHASSEE -- Florida runs short on heroes from time to time, and I think we're at one of those low points now. But there was once was a Bob Mann, and maybe someday there will be another.

Robert T. Mann, the former legislator, judge, law professor and public service commissioner, who died Tuesday, is properly remembered for the ethics and wit that distinguished him even in adversity. Having lost a race for House speaker in 1967, and having been banished to the chairmanship of the least significant committee, Mann still managed to win the press poll for most valuable member of the House that year. On returning to accept it, he described it as his "posthumous good conduct award."

The memory I cherish most is for something that doesn't usually win laurels for a public official: simply telling the truth to a reporter.

In 1973, when Mann was a judge of the 2nd District Court of Appeal, word was passed to me that a Supreme Court justice had tried to fix a bribery case Mann's court was considering. Without a blast from the press, the Judicial Qualifications Commission wasn't going to do a thing about the tampering, which ultimately got the justice -- an ex-justice by then -- disbarred.

So I called Mann and his colleague Joseph McNulty, the two judges who had voted to uphold the bribery conviction. They told the story straight, without hesitation and on the record.

By then, Mann and McNulty had seen the Supreme Court overturn the conviction they had upheld and had reported the events to the JQC. They could have done what nearly everyone else was doing, the safe thing, which was to refuse to comment to the press, but I don't think that ever occurred to them. The expose contributed significantly to cleaning up the Supreme Court.

It was entirely consistent, of course, with Mann's reputation as the Legislature's most iconoclastic ethicist. His most famous quotation -- that if a legislator could not be bought, Florida still needed rules "to assure the public that a legislator can't be rented for several months" -- was based on early observation.

In an interview last June, he told me of his freshman term in 1957, when a childhood friend who wasn't a lobbyist approached him on behalf of the small loan industry, which wanted to double the $300 lending limit in force at the time.

"I thought you all had a lobbyist," said Mann. "Yes," said his friend, "but his idea is to send a fifth of whisky and a blond up to your hotel room. And I told him that wouldn't work on you."

At least 24 House members had taken the opportunity to buy small-loan stock, which was a can't-lose proposition at a time when there were no credit cards. When the offer came his way, Mann passed.

Former Gov. Reubin Askew, who appointed Mann to a vacancy on the then-elected Public Service Commission in 1977, said he did so because Mann would "listen to the (utilities) industry but not be captured by them" and because he was "intellectually able to understand the intricacies of that position." Indeed, Mann became the first PSC member to be seated on merit rather than for winning a statewide election, and his fresh approach made some of the lobbies so uncomfortable that they pulled strings, unsuccessfully, to be rid of him. When he left, to return to the University of Florida law school, it was at his choosing.

There had been some people, not many, who disapproved when Mann changed parties so that Gov. Claude R. Kirk Jr., would appoint him to the 2nd District. But Kirk didn't expect any more of him than that, and he must have recalled what Henri IV of Navarre, a Huguenot, said of converting to Catholicism upon becoming king of France: "Paris is worth a Mass."

Having Bob Mann on the bench was worth it, too.

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