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Senator's new job passes ethics test

State Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite's job with Swiftmud has prompted conflict of interest charges.

legislature 2000
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© St. Petersburg Times, published March 15, 2000

BROOKSVILLE -- State Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite has accepted a $71,600-per-year job with the Southwest Florida Water Management District, a position she will hold while serving the remaining two years of her Senate term.

At least one local Democrat sees the arrangement as a conflict of interest and suspects the job was Brown-Waite's reward for staying in the Senate; but nothing in Florida law or the Senate's code of ethics forbids it, said Philip Claypool, general counsel for the Florida Commission on Ethics.

"In many opinions, the Ethics Commission has concluded that a member of the Legislature can be employed by a governmental agency in Florida," he wrote in a letter to Brown-Waite.

Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, who receives $27,000 per year as a senator, asked for this advisory opinion before she accepted the job as assistant director of communications and community affairs last week. She begins working for the district May 8.

Brown-Waite has worked for a health maintenance organization in Tampa for the past two years and previously worked for the medical-industry giant Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp. She did not return a call to her legislative office Tuesday.

The issues involved with her new position are generally the same as with her other jobs, Claypool said. The Legislature governs every organization in Florida and allocates money to many, both private and public.

"If legislators could not be employed by one of those agencies, you would be excluding a huge class of people from ever serving in a legislative capacity," he said.

Though relatively few lawmakers work for state agencies, it is not unheard of, he said. State Rep. Marjorie Turnbull, D-Tallahassee, for example, is director of the Tallahassee Community College Foundation.

It may be acceptable on the state level, said Alexander Jenkins, chairman of the Hernando County Executive Committee, but it is not in her district.

"This is an inherent conflict as far as I'm concerned," he said.

As a senator, he said, she will be helping to set policy for an agency that employs her. Recusing herself from issues involving Swiftmud would represent a different kind of disservice to her constituents, Jenkins said; that would mean her new job is handcuffing her in an area where she has been effective in the past.

The job was created after the agency's departments of community affairs and communications merged in January. That was shortly after Brown-Waite announced she planned to remain in the Senate rather than run for Hernando County Supervisor of Elections, as she once planned.

"They had to offer her something to stay in the Legislature," Jenkins said.

"It may very well be, though I don't have any direct knowledge of it," said Hernando County Commissioner Nancy Robinson, who briefly campaigned for Brown-Waite's Senate job when it was open.

That perception is incorrect, said incoming Senate President John McKay, R-Bradenton, who was a key figure in convincing her to stay in the Senate.

E.D. "Sonny" Vergara, Swiftmud's executive director, said Brown-Waite was hired because her qualifications are ideal. The position was advertised, and she beat out several other candidates. And, before the two departments were merged, the agency unsuccessfully looked for a director of the community affairs department.

Brown-Waite's job, Vergara said, "has to do with dealing with local governments and coordinating our activities with local governments."

Brown-Waite worked as both a Hernando County commissioner and a Swiftmud employee before being elected to the Senate in 1992.

"She's articulate," Vergara said. "She understands the issues from the perspective of the county commissions."

The Swiftmud job will pay almost as well as the supervisor of elections job and is included in the state's retirement program. Retirement income is based on a percentage of the five best annual salaries employees earn during their careers.

"The high five, we call it," said Andy McMullian III, director of the state Division of Retirement.

For the next two years, Brown-Waite will get credit for both her Swiftmud and Senate salaries. Though non-elected officials receive a smaller percentage of their working salaries than elected ones, McMullian said, "this is going to sweeten the pot for her."

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