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Ethics law lets foxes guard the henhouse

By LUCY MORGAN, Times Tallahassee Bureau Chief

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 15, 2001

Florida is one of only two states in the nation that doesn't allow its Ethics Commission to initiate investigations of public officials.

In Florida, the commission is a creature of the Legislature. Its nine members are appointed by the governor, the Senate president and the House speaker. It can investigate the ethics of a public official only when someone files a formal complaint.

This is sort of like allowing the police to arrest a burglar only when a formal complaint is filed in writing by an interested citizen who has seen the burglary and is willing to attach his name to a document.

In practice it means that some pretty serious ethical conduct can occur without an investigation taking place, even when the conduct occurs in public.

How many people do you know who are willing to walk out on a limb to sign a complaint, especially when the public official could have control over your budget or job?

The stupidity of this restraint on the commission was obvious last month in a Tampa case that had been the subject of much publicity. Tampa officials asked the commission for an advisory opinion on the case, but the rigid law kept them from being able to conduct an independent investigation -- until someone stepped forward and filed a formal complaint.

It seems like a simple concept, but year after year the Ethics Commission goes before legislators begging for the privilege, and year after year legislators refuse.

They don't talk much about it. They just don't pass the bills. The same thing often happens to bills that would repair our tattered election law. It took a national crisis to force any repair.

Former House Speaker John Thrasher, a man who has seen the Ethics Commission from several vantage points, is one of the few legislators who ever said much out loud about the Legislature's refusal to give more authority to the commission.

He suggested they might become "witch hunts" and refused to let the bill get through the House. Thrasher has twice paid fines recommended by the Ethics Commission, once before he was speaker for illegally representing a client before a state agency and again after for lobbying a bit too soon after he left office.

Legislators have carefully exempted themselves from much of the conflict of interest law that pertains to others, and even more carefully avoided doing anything that would allow an outside agency to actually impose a penalty on a lawmaker. The commission can merely "recommend" a punishment. The legislators zealously guard the right to punish their own members lest anyone else judge them too harshly.

Florida and West Virginia are the only two states that put such stringent limits on what ethics commissioners can investigate. The issue was raised this week in a critical report issued by the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C. The center says all of the ethics commissions in the nation are kept on short leashes by lawmakers.

The center did give Florida points for increasing the Ethics Commission's budget over the past few years, but the authors forgot to note that the commission has also been given the additional burden of handling financial disclosures filed by more than 40,000 public officials each year.

Only Rhode Island gives its Ethics Commission the power to remove a legislator from office, a move that followed a substantial scandal.

If many of the states have laws like ours, there is room enough to drive a truck through almost anything.

Generally speaking, it takes a really big scandal to generate laws with any real teeth.

Perhaps some day we'll have a legislature that is willing to pass some tough ethical standards and establish some real penalties.

Maybe. But don't hold your breath while you are waiting.

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