Attorney general candidate calls for new rules to fight corruption

Nov 5, 2009


St. Petersburg Times

TALLAHASSEE — State Sen. Dan Gelber, a candidate for attorney general, called on Florida's elected state attorneys Wednesday to help him pass a series of anticorruption measures in the 2010 legislative session.

The Miami Beach Democrat, a former federal prosecutor, said a series of political scandals could give new momentum to old proposals. Election year politics suggests that Republicans won't be very eager to give Gelber a platform from which to promote himself as a reformer, but he said he's optimistic.

"I think there's an appetite this year," Gelber told a group of prosecutors meeting Wednesday. "I think the amount of public corruption prosecutions has created a total lapse of credibility with the public."

Gelber proposed a package of reforms. They include a tougher law to combat bribery and tampering with bids on government contracts; stiffer penalties for crimes committed in an official capacity; more sunshine or openness in the Legislature; further restricting contact between the Public Service Commission and the utilities it regulates; and prohibiting legislators from controlling slush funds known as committees of continuous existence, which can accept unlimited donations from special interests.

The new chairman of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, Sen. John Thrasher, R-Orange Park, said he favored transparency in the campaign finance system — but did not endorse Gelber's proposal to ban the committees themselves.

"There ought to be real-time transparency," Thrasher said. "I'm not interested in curtailing the amount of money. There are constitutional issues there."

Thrasher, a former House speaker and lobbyist who was elected last month to succeed the late Jim King, agreed that soft-money political funds, including so-called 527s, can be abusive. But he added that legislators create them because they feel hamstrung by the $500 limit on contributions to their own re-election funds — a figure he said was too low.

Corruption in Florida has become too prevalent in recent weeks for political leaders to ignore. Gov. Charlie Crist has petitioned the Supreme Court to empanel a statewide grand jury to focus on corruption, following the recent indictments of a prominent South Florida lobbyist, a Broward County commissioner and Broward School Board member.

"Enough is enough," Crist said Wednesday.

Nearly a decade ago, then-Gov. Jeb Bush formed a Public Corruption Task Force, but many of its recommendations were ignored by legislators.

Gelber is seeking the Democratic nomination for attorney general against a fellow senator, former Assistant State Attorney Dave Aronberg of Greenacres. The Republican candidates are Holly Benson, a former legislator and state agency head, and Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp.

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