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Florida 'barely passing' ethics test

A national report on potential conflicts of interest finds legislators in Tallahassee wanting in several respects.

By LUCY MORGAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 21, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- A two-year investigation into conflicts of interest among the nation's lawmakers has determined that Florida's legislators, like those in many other states, often have a financial stake in the laws they pass.

The Center for Public Integrity, a non-profit, non-partisan watchdog group in Washington, D.C., made the study with funding from a handful of the nation's best-known foundations.

The center researched financial disclosure reports from the 47 states where reports are required, and compared the assets and other information about lawmakers with their committee assignments, leadership positions and legislative duties.

The results of the study were released for publication today and will be available at http://www.publicintegrity.org.

Florida and 40 other states have part-time "citizen legislatures" that pay relatively low salaries to lawmakers who also have other professions or jobs. Florida lawmakers are paid about $27,000 a year, compared with a national average of $18,000 a year.

The group found that the percentage of lawmakers with potential conflicts is slightly lower in Florida than in the rest of the country. The study of 117 Florida lawmakers who were in office in 1998 found:

21 percent sat on legislative committees that regulated their own profession or business interest.

28 percent had financial ties to businesses or organizations that lobby state government.

11 percent received income from a government agency other than the state Legislature, and in many cases worked for agencies the Legislature funded.

Of the 117 lawmakers studied, 23 were in the banking profession, 22 in health care and 19 in law.

The report comes as the federal government is turning over more power to state lawmakers.

The report also comes at a time when some Florida legislators have been in the spotlight -- and sent to prison -- for crimes associated with their legislative duties.

Former House Speaker Bo Johnson is in federal prison for failing to report more than $500,000 in income he received from special interests. Former state Sen. Alberto Gutman of Miami has been sentenced to five years in federal prison for Medicare fraud committed while he served as chairman of a Senate health care committee.

Johnson and Gutman ran afoul of federal laws, but were never accused of state ethics violations. Florida's conflict of interest laws exempt legislators from most potential conflicts and make it difficult for state officials to pursue ethical complaints.

This spring, after a lot of talk about the need for ethical reforms, Florida legislators let most proposed reforms die. One relatively minor change requires outgoing public officials to file a final report disclosing income they received during their last year in office.

The report graded all 50 states, including those that don't require disclosure reports. Almost half received failing grades because lawmakers can hide private financial interests from the public and press.

Florida was described as having "barely passing grades" because of loopholes in financial disclosure laws that allow lawmakers to keep private business activities out of public view.

Florida Rep. George Albright, R-Ocala, is the "poster boy" the center uses to highlight a legislative conflict of interest.

Albright wants to return growth management decisions to local governments after 15 years of state oversight. The report suggested that Albright's zeal to reform the law arose from his own real estate interests and his brother's chairmanship of the Marion County Zoning Commission.

Albright vehemently denies there is any conflict between his job as a legislator and his private business developments. He insists his zeal comes from philosophical feelings born out of too much state control over local development.

Albright is one of 62 legislators forced out of office this year by term limits. When contacted by the St. Petersburg Times on Friday, Albright's secretary asked for a copy of the center's report and faxed a copy of a letter he had written to NBC news explaining that his failure to appear for a scheduled interview on the subject was due to illness. Albright would not discuss the report with the Times either.

In his written response, Albright said he believes he was singled out in "a knowing malicious attempt to punish me for exposing the consortium of environmentalists and newspapers who wish to halt growth in Florida and send our economy into a disastrous depression."

Albright also said he is reviewing legal alternatives "to respond to this libelous lynching."

In its survey of other lawmakers around the country, the report notes that Albright is not alone:

In North Carolina, almost 60 percent of the state lawmakers sat on committees that directly affected their private income.

In Illinois, a senator works as a registered lobbyist for a law firm that specializes in defending doctors accused of malpractice and was the prime sponsor of tort reform bills in 1995.

At least 26 percent of Oregon legislators have put their spouses on the payroll as legislative aides, a practice forbidden by Florida's nepotism law.

In Connecticut, lawmakers with family members who are sheriffs blocked reforms in a scandal-ridden sheriff's system.

In South Carolina, a senator who earned more than $600,000 representing injured workers in 1998 participated extensively in reforming the state's workers' compensation system.

In Nebraska, two legislators who are also lottery retailers doggedly supported legislation to increase compensation for lottery retailers by 20 percent.

In Maine, a lawmaker who heads a multimillion-dollar health care corporation helped steer more than $10-million in state contracts to his own firm.

In Ohio, a senator who collected more than $161,000 in consulting fees from First Energy Corp. sponsored a bill that would allow the company to gain up to $8-billion.

In Delaware, lawmakers in 1999 eased restrictions on electric utility sales and boasted that it was a "winning" situation for all. Eight House members owned thousands of dollars each of stock in Delaware's biggest utility company when they voted.

In several states, lawmakers defended apparent conflicts by saying their background and experience in the private sector makes them more knowledgeable and better able to fix problems.

The report says scholars and ethicists differ on which situations pose a conflict of interest. In Florida, it is not a conflict of interest for a legislator to take action affecting the industry he works for. It becomes a problem only when a vote would benefit that lawmaker.

Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, says most states have similar laws.

"The big question, I guess, is: Are they disclosing everything, and is anybody looking at these statements?" Stern told the report's authors. "There's also the question of enforcement. Just to say you didn't file on time, we're going to fine you, I think is important."

In comparing Florida with other states on disclosure and open records laws, the Sunshine State ranked 25th overall, behind states like Texas, Alabama and Alaska.

Florida law does not make lawmakers disclose information about their spouses' employment, investments or property holdings, identify positions held by dependents, the value of earnings from clients or even identify their spouses or dependents, the report noted.

"A diligent press and an engaged and educated electorate are important, and effort to make financial information available to the public are paramount," noted John Dunbar, a center reporter.

The two-year study was based on reports gathered from all 50 states and financial disclosure reports filed by 5,716 legislators.

The study was funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Deer Creek Foundation, Ford Foundation, Joyce Foundation, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Alida R. Messinger and the Open Society Institute.

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