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    Excuses fly as ethics group hears appeals

    Public officials who didn't file required financial disclosure reports tell the Florida Ethics Commission why.

    By LUCY MORGAN, Times Tallahassee Bureau Chief

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published October 26, 2002

    TALLAHASSEE -- The Florida Ethics Commission has spent a lot of time weighing excuses from hundreds of public officials who failed to file financial disclosure reports on time.

    The computer burned up, said Lawrence Churchman, a member of the pension board in the small town of Sweetwater in Miami-Dade County, as he asked the commission to waive a $1,500 penalty levied against anyone who cannot prove that the failure occurred because of an "uncommon, rare or sudden event over which the individual has no control."

    About 40,000 public officials in Florida must file the annual reports each July 1. Those who fail to file by Sept. 1 face an automatic fine of $25 a day, capped at $1,500. Each year, hundreds fail to meet the deadline and pay little attention until they are notified that the maximum fine is being imposed.

    Ethics Commission chairman Pat Neal, a former state senator, says the appeals take up far too much time and staff attention. Later this year, the commission will ask legislators to change the law and give the commission more flexibility in determining fines.

    Elected officials drawing a salary should be held to a higher standard than unpaid volunteers, some commissioners argue.

    On Friday the commission considered appeals by dozens of officials who missed the deadline.

    A Homestead Housing Authority member said he missed it because he was on active duty in Kuwait. Some blamed secretaries for losing the form. Others said they had to care for elderly relatives. A Melbourne man on the board of adjustment said he was single, overworked and ill and probably lost the forms because his house "was a shambles."

    Another said he was busy with his wife and two children, with a baby on the way. Some blamed the Postal Service, while others suggested the forms were lost by elections supervisors preoccupied with problems.

    Joseph Catarella, a former member of the Pasco County Health Facilities Authority, said he didn't file his 2001 report because he resigned from the board in June 2001, before the report was due. But he didn't explain his failure to file a report in 2000 and was ordered to pay a $1,500 fine.

    Attorney Mark Herron pleaded the case of Charlie A. Wright, a member of the Tallahassee Environmental Code Enforcement Board. Wright's wife signed for a certified letter addressed to Charlie L. Wright, but he didn't open it because he didn't realize it was meant for him, Herron said.

    Wright frequently gets mail for other people with similar names and throws it away, Herron said.

    The commission staff recommended the maximum fine of $1,500, but after much discussion the commission reduced Wright's fine to $300.

    Most appeals were denied, and those who didn't file their reports or respond to the commission's notice will face collection agencies.

    Commission members hope lawmakers will eliminate the automatic fine and establish a $300 maximum fine.

    Since the late 1970s, all elected and appointed officials and employees who handle purchasing and contract decisions have been required to annually disclose their assets, liabilities and sources of income.

    * * *

    The commission dismissed a complaint accusing House Speaker Tom Feeney of wielding his influence to help a legal client in an $8-million contract dispute with a state agency.

    The complaint accused Feeney, R-Oviedo, of using his influence to help Yang Enterprises in a dispute with the Florida Department of Transportation.

    A staff report found nothing to indicate Feeney violated a law that prevents elected officials from using or attempting to use their official positions to secure a special privilege, benefit or exemption for themselves or others.

    -- The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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    From the Times state desk