Legislature Approves Ethics Reform — No Joke!
Promise not to laugh?
An ethics bill was passed last week in Tallahassee.
It’s no joke. The Florida Legislature unanimously approved a law designed to clean up its own sketchy act, and that of elected officials all over the state.
Gov. Rick Scott says he’s “reviewing” the bill. To veto it would be an act of profound cluelessness, but remember who we’re talking about.
The ethics legislation is significant because the concept of enforcing ethical behavior is so foreign to Florida politics. Decades of well-publicized misdeeds and flagrant conflicts of interest have failed to make a moral dent.
A few years ago, lawmakers went through the motions of establishing something called a Commission on Ethics. Most Floridians were unaware of its existence, for good reason. It was a total sham.
The panel could place monetary fines on elected officials for ethical violations, but it wasn’t empowered to collect those fines, which on paper have surpassed $1 million over the last 10 years. Nobody had to pay, so nobody took the commission seriously.
This year things changed. Senate president Don Gaetz announced that ethics reform was a top priority. His bill flew through the Senate on the very first day of the Legislative session.
The House sent it back, after some tweaking by Speaker Will Weatherford, and the new version was adopted without a dissenting vote by the full Legislature.
If Scott signs the bill into law, the Commission on Ethics will actually be able to collect the fines it imposes on wayward officeholders — even garnish their wages, if necessary.
Among other provisions, lawmakers would be banned from voting on any bills that might enhance their own personal finances. While in office, they wouldn’t be allowed to accept any government job. Once out of office, they’d be prohibited from lobbying state agencies for two years.
Such restrictions seem rather basic, even tame, until you consider that we’re basically starting from scratch. In Florida, the bar for sleazoid antics has been set very high.
The impetus for reform isn’t mysterious. As Republicans, Gaetz and Weatherford have seen their party stained by scandals.
Gaetz is from Okaloosa County, home to former House Speaker Ray Sansom. In 2010 Sansom resigned from the Legislature because of ethics complaints and an ongoing corruption probe.
Just two months ago, former GOP chairman Jim Greer pleaded guilty to five felonies, including grand theft and money laundering, in a case involving extravagant misuse of campaign funds and the party’s American Express cards.
Greer’s plea avoided an embarrassing trial that would have sent top Republican politicians to the witness stand. Having dodged that bullet, party leaders then had to watch their lieutenant governor, Jennifer Carroll, abruptly resign after being linked to an Internet gambling cafe operation.
That company, Allied Veterans of the World, allegedly pocketed millions of dollars in charity funds that were supposed to be earmarked to help military veterans. It also donated gobs of money to the election campaigns of many Florida legislators, Republicans and Democrats.
Such headlines tend to produce a climate of fresh ethical awareness.
An interesting component of the new bill is the two-year ban on lobbying after leaving office. Traditionally, politicians who don’t want regular jobs become lobbyists when they return to private life.
House Speaker Weatherford’s predecessor, Dean Cannon, incorporated his own lobby firm a month before exiting the Legislature, and he hit the ground running. All perfectly legal, at the time.
Lots of other ex-House speakers and retired Senate bigshots are also lobbyists, schmoozing former colleagues on behalf of high-paying corporate and municipal clients. This revolving door ratifies the average voter’s cynical view of state government as a game fixed by insiders.
Although two years isn’t very long to wait between serving in public office and privately cashing in, any wait is better than what we’ve got now.
Ethics reform will be only as good as its enforcement, and history tells us not to have high hopes. This legislation is not without wiggle room and loopholes, including a provision for blind trusts that would allow officeholders to conceal the details of their wealth.
However, the bill at least puts some strong words on paper, and opens a pathway for prosecutors.
To help clarify the details and reduce the chances for future indictment, every elected official would be required to take annual ethics training.
You’re laughing again, right?
Sure, there’s something absurd about having to train a politician to be ethical. But, hey, if they can teach a cat to play the piano….
(Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132.)
Photo of former Lt. Governor Jennifer Carroll: AP/Phil Spears