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Toleration of a felon is a stain on Senate
By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published November 25, 2006
In the halls of power in Tallahassee, he's the Honorable Gary Siplin, one of 40 people who belong to the club known as the Florida Senate.
Back home in Orlando, he's a felon.
A jury in August convicted Siplin, a Democrat, of grand theft for using three state workers on his 2004 campaign.
He was sentenced to three years' probation.
Because Siplin is appealing his conviction, the Senate has decided the 52-year-old lawyer can keep his seat.
It's the first time anyone can remember a felon being allowed to serve in the Florida Legislature.
Siplin still has the spacious office, the staff, the personal parking space. He alone speaks for nearly a half-million people in Orange and Osceola counties.
By bending over backward to protect Siplin's due process rights, the Senate is endangering its own credibility.
To the average citizen, it looks as if Siplin's illegal act carries no consequences.
This comes as the Senate's new president, Republican Ken Pruitt of Port St. Lucie, promises a fresh start in confronting problems such as high property taxes and property insurance.
The most recent case similar to Siplin's occurred in 1999, when Sen. Al Gutman of Miami was required to resign his seat as a condition of a plea deal in a Medicaid fraud scheme.
Siplin's case is not nearly as outrageous as Gutman's. But he's receiving favored treatment, no doubt about it. No restaurant or roofing company is required to keep a thief on its payroll.
Moreover, if Siplin were a mayor or county commissioner, he'd be suspended from office by the governor pending the outcome of his appeal. An official who wins an appeal can be reinstated.
Even the Florida House takes a dim view of such behavior.
The House adopted a rule Tuesday that says: "A member convicted of a felony of any jurisdiction may, at the discretion of the speaker, be suspended immediately, without a hearing and without pay, from all privileges of membership of the House pending appellate action."
Siplin is a senator, and that makes all the difference.
Senate rules require disciplinary matters against any member to be suspended until a "final determination" of the charges at trial or "exhaustion of all appellate remedies." And the state Constitution Article 3, Section 2 makes each legislative chamber "the sole judge of the qualifications" of its members.
The bottom line, Pruitt said, is that the Senate's hands are tied as long as Siplin appeals.
Senate Democratic Leader Steve Geller of Hallandale Beach said it would be wrong to remove Siplin when his appeal is pending because removal is final and permanent.
Geller asked lawyer Kendall Coffey, an election law expert, to analyze Siplin's case.
Coffey concluded that Siplin has a high likelihood of winning his appeal because the evidence against him was circumstantial.
For that reason, Coffey said, it would be wrong to impose the "irretrievable consequences" of removal in Siplin's case.
Siplin keeps his seat. The question is whether the people of Florida can keep a straight face.