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Integrity must start in the arena of politics

By LUCY MORGAN Tallahassee Bureau Chief

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 9, 1999

TALLAHASSEE -- In the Capitol this week a group of important people met to talk about public corruption. Mostly, they are public officials who don't have to look too hard to find out why Floridians don't trust many of those who have been elected to office.

Outside the Capitol the talk was all of football and retail theft.

There is a connection here. The trouble comes from arrogance and a lack of integrity. Both are in abundant supply inside the Capitol and on many football fields.

Some of it is our fault. We applaud the performances on the playing fields and in the political arena and make much of the heroes before us without demanding integrity or ethical behavior.

An athlete who is good on the field is often excused when he doesn't make good grades or engages in illegal or unethical conduct. We do these young men no service if we don't also give them an education and expect integrity.

It was terribly stupid, to say nothing of criminal, if Heisman Trophy candidate Peter Warrick and Laveranues Coles did indeed coax a clerk to give them more clothing than they paid for.

They've been charged with felonies: grand theft from Dillard's Department Store. The young female clerk who helped them get more than $400 worth of new clothes for about $21 also faces criminal charges. All three lives are in a wreck over a few items of clothing.

It came as no surprise to the folks who work at Governor's Square, the mall where the now-notorious event occurred.

Talk to the clerks who work at the mall and they'll tell you that some FSU football players have made a practice of conning free food, drink and merchandise out of impressionable young clerks. I suspect that this may be true in many college towns where football players are practically worshiped.

If the allegations are true, you can see what a slippery slope these kids were on last week when they walked into Dillards and made a "purchase." Warrick has admitted that it happened before.

This is not the first time the mall and players who wanted free clothes have contributed to problems at FSU. The last time players were caught letting sports agents buy the clothes for them.

It's a shame someone didn't put a stop to this long ago. A few Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger shirts were not a good trade for a Heisman.

On the public corruption front, it looks like the study commission appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush may be the first really good chance we've had to get some new ethics laws on the books.

Legislators are notoriously reluctant to pass any law with teeth -- too afraid it might bite one of their own, I'd guess.

But if our elected officials are ever going to restore public trust in the people they elect, there has to be a way to get at some of the more obvious forms of corruption.

A sheriff who trades privileges to jail inmates for sex or a House speaker who takes thousands of dollars from businesses that need favors from the state cannot be tolerated. When such conduct doesn't violate state law, something is terribly wrong.

And the state should not have to depend on the federal courts every time a public official gets in trouble. Some of these problems might have been avoided if anyone had ever really gotten serious enough to give the Ethics Commission the power to initiate investigations and the teeth to punish those found guilty.

Under current law a formal complaint has to be filed. Few people have the nerve to file a complaint and withstand the wrath of a public official. The officials usually escape with little or no punishment.

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