Clean up Tallahassee, too: Toughen ethics standards for politicians statewide

Feb 7, 2010


Palm Beach Post Editorial Board


For too long, it has been easy for elected officials to duck what pass for ethics laws in Florida. Even if a public official commits an ethics violation, state law carries no criminal penalties. Those in Tallahassee who wrote such tame laws, of course, are among those who would face the penalties.

Two bills drafted by the state attorneys of Palm Beach and Broward counties, Michael McAuliffe and Michael Satz, would toughen those standards. The bills would require politicians in Florida to disclose dealings that corrupt politicians prefer to keep to themselves.

For instance, suppose a legislator were to funnel public money to a university and then take a six-figure job with that same university, as former House Speaker Ray Sansom, R-Destin, did. Senate Bill 1076 and its House counterpart, HB 585, would require that the legislator disclose that he or she had been contemplating the job. If they failed to disclose, a prosecutor would have to prove that a legislator who claimed to have nothing to hide actually hid something. "If it's done purposefully," Mr. McAuliffe said, "then you know you've already crossed the line."

Mr. McAuliffe acted on the recommendations of a Palm Beach County grand jury that last year examined countywide corruption after five politicians had been sent to prison. The jurors considered the tools available for state prosecutors to pursue public corruption cases to be "fundamentally inadequate." They're right.

A second bill, SB 734/HB 439, would increase the penalty for elected officials charged under general law — in Rep. Sansom's case, theft — but not under anti-corruption statutes. It would be the equivalent of tougher penalties for hate crimes.

The Senate sponsor of both bills is Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, who previously tried to pass a state version of the federal honest services law that put three Palm Beach County commissioners in prison. The bills are written to hold up even if the U.S. Supreme Court throws out the honest services law, which is before the court in two cases.

Politicians — and the federal judge who sentenced one of the county commissioners — complain that the honest services law is so vague that they can't tell which actions are illegal. In fact, the difference should be obvious to anyone who understands ethics. The proposed Florida law, however, is more precise. It would force prosecutors to prove that a politician acted with "corrupt intent" in failing to disclose "a direct or indirect financial interest, or future financial interest." It would cover not just the public officials but any immediate family member. "It captures," Sen. Gelber said, "the misconduct that generally is corrupting government when a decision is not based on what's best for the public."

The Republican leadership has not allowed Sen. Gelber's past efforts at ethics reform to receive even a hearing. Sen. Gelber is running for attorney general, which could offer the GOP another bad excuse for blocking the bill. The legislation, though, has clear bipartisan appeal. A better idea would be for Republicans, like a poker player calling and raising, to work to make the bills even better — and then pass them.




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Political advertisement paid for and approved by Dan Gelber.