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A Times Editorial

Backing higher ethics

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 21, 2000

Gov. Jeb Bush made ethics in government one of his priorities last year by forming a special commission to propose tougher ethical rules. Not only should public officials be held to higher standards, the commission concluded, but corruption laws should apply to private companies that contract with public agencies.

Bush missed a chance recently to practice what he and his commission preached.

One of the state departments that answers to the governor, the Agency for Health Care Administration, is involved in a bidding controversy. According to Sarah Grim, a Missouri businesswoman, lobbyists Don Yaeger and Michael Colodny told her they could guarantee her company would win a $24-million Medicaid review contract with the agency if she paid them $1.2-million. Worried about impropriety, Grim contacted the FBI.

Yaeger's friendship with agency employees has raised other concerns. A few weeks after Yaeger vacationed in Jamaica with Douglas Russell, the agency official approved a $900,000 purchase from a company Yaeger represented. When questions arose about their relationship, Russell resigned and Yaeger said he would stop lobbying.

Bush was silent on the troubling situation until the Democratic Party asked for a state investigation of the agency. He refused, saying the Democrats were "playing politics." Bush added: "If there was any wrongdoing, I can assure you (agency director) Ruben King-Shaw would change the procedures."

Credible allegations of contract fixing and a lobbyist's improper influence over public employees cannot be brushed off as "politics." And how would King-Shaw know if there was wrongdoing at his agency without an investigation?

Bush should realize that even the appearance of illegal or unethical behavior at a state agency can have a corrosive effect on public trust. If the governor is going to talk about holding government to higher ethical standards, he should be willing to back it up with his actions.

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