Legislature set to hit the session running on corruption reform: There's a sense of urgency to fix things, one senator says.

Dec 21, 2009

Brandon Larrabee

Florida Times Union


TALLAHASSEE - After a rash of corruption charges against state and local officials and other political figures, a handful of lawmakers has already filed a slate of bills aimed at cracking down on official misconduct.

The measures were offered even after Gov. Charlie Crist has successfully petitioned the Florida Supreme Court to empanel a statewide grand jury to investigate potential corruption in state and local government.

At the same time, Senate Ethics and Elections Committee Chairman John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, is arguing for a move-carefully approach and not to overreact to sensational headlines.

In announcing the second of three petitions he filed with the court - the final one successful - Crist said he had suspended 33 officials in the past three years because of corruption charges. Meanwhile, former House Speaker Ray Sansom faces an indictment connected to accusations he steered appropriations to a Panhandle college that later hired him while chairing the House's budget-writing committee. A prominent Florida fundraiser was also recently indicted.

"People, I think, are really wondering what the heck is going on," said Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach and a candidate for attorney general in 2010. "I think that may create a sense of urgency to do some anticorruption stuff. ... I figure if there's ever a year that shame will settle in, this might be it."

Gelber has filed a handful of measures he said will help crack down on corruption, including a law adding penalties for officials who commit crimes in their official capacity and a constitutional amendment that would increase transparency in the budget process, including requiring public notice when two or more lawmakers get together to discuss the budget.

The spending bill would also have to be written in a way "so people can actually follow it without hiring a lobbyist who has a special computer program and is friends with somebody on the staff," he said.

Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota, said flaws in the process not only allow lawmakers to do favors for special interests, they encourage it. Fitzgerald, who filed the House version of the budget transparency proposal, said he wasn't attempting to score partisan points from the indictment of Sansom, a Republican.

"It's not a political slight at Sansom," he said. "It is an effort to try to fix the Legislature."

The push for toughening ethics laws isn't confined to Democrats. Drawing from grand jury recommendations after a corruption probe in Palm Beach County, Rep. Carl Domino, R-Jupiter, has filed a measure including Gelber's "color of law" penalties for public officials and other proposals meant to strengthen standards for elected officials.

"Logic would tell me, given all the things that have happened ... we really need to address the issue of ethics," Domino said.

Self-interest might dictate the same, Fitzgerald said.

"There's going to come a point where incumbents are going to be losing because people are fed up with this stuff," he said.

But Thrasher wants lawmakers to move deliberately as they consider overhauling state laws in response to the corruption stories.

"One of the responsible things to do, if the grand jury [Crist requested] is convened, is wait for their recommendations before we jump ahead," Thrasher said. "Sometimes there is an overreaction to that kind of stuff."

Some of the budget changes recommended by Gelber, Thrasher said, might gum up the sometimes-hectic negotiations in the final days of the budget process.

"If somebody can convincingly make the argument that the Legislature does great right now, I will recede from the bill," Gelber countered. "It is always easier to do something in secret, but it's never, ever better."

Fitzgerald conceded the budget measure could make things more difficult.

"It would make people have to work a little bit longer and a little bit more carefully," he said. "But we're talking about spending billions of dollars of taxpayer money, so what's wrong with that?"




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