Editorial: Turn up the heat on Florida corruption

Nov 18, 2009

Editorial Board


Call it a campaign ploy, but politicians can’t be wrong all the time ... can they?
State Attorney General candidate Dan Gelber wants the 2010 Legislature to pass a series of anti-corruption bills that would:

Toughen laws to combat bribery and tampering with bids of government contracts.
Impose stiffer penalties for crimes committed in an official capacity.

Further restrict contact between the Public Service Commission and the utilities it regulates.

Bar legislators from controlling slush funds known as “committees of continuous existence.”

The Democratic state senator from Miami Beach might have trouble getting his colleagues on board, especially when he attempts to derail their financial gravy trains, but Gelber has street cred as a former federal prosecutor.

No one can argue that Florida doesn’t have a corruption problem. Witness the three Palm Beach County commissioners who’ve been imprisoned within the past two years for using their office for personal gain.

Alex Acosta, former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, obtained those convictions through aggressive application of the federal Honest Services Act. These high-profile court victories were a credit to federal crime-busters — and an indictment of South Florida’s state attorneys who appeared to be little more than passive observers in their own jurisdictions.

State Attorney Bruce Colton, who oversees the Treasure Coast’s 19th Judicial Circuit from Fort Pierce, agrees that Florida’s anti-corruption laws could stand to be strengthened.
“We need something more in line with what the feds have,” Colton says.

Gelber has called on the state attorneys to endorse his Senate Bill 444, which would mirror the federal Honest Services Act by broadening Florida’s fraud statutes to include “theft or deprivation of honest services.” This expansive wording means taxpayers have a right to clean government and honest public employees.

One area that cries out for specific scrutiny are the aforementioned committees of continuous existence. These are essentially personal slush funds for lawmakers to accept unlimited donations from special interests. This leads to back-door favor-trading, and worse.

The committees have wreaked havoc on the electoral process by blurring the line between issue-oriented advocacy (their purported purpose) and personal attacks on rival candidates (which technically are prohibited). With courts further muddling the situation by shielding donors’ identities, it’s difficult to see how “honest services” can be expected.

Insofar as Gelber’s reform package curbs legislative slush funds and gives state attorneys better tools to combat corruption, his initiative deserves serious consideration in Tallahassee. After all, what legislator wants to go on record as being soft on crime?

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Political advertisement paid for and approved by Dan Gelber.