Legislature's plans to toughen ethics laws overdue

Feb 10, 2010




It's not that public corruption is new to Palm Beach and Broward counties, despite the recent flurry of front-page photos of elected officials walking in and out of court on criminal charges. It's really that new attention has been focused on an old problem, and you can thank the federal government for bringing a welcome spotlight to the ugliness most everyone suspected lurked under the surface.

Now, federal prosecutors' initiative in nabbing a growing line of politicians for abusing their elected office in pursuit of personal riches may finally embarrass state legislators to do what many once considered unthinkable: toughen state ethics laws governing their own behavior, and their political and personal futures, and that of their colleagues across the state.

It's an overdue and refreshing move, and the Legislature would be smart to improve the U.S. "honest services" law with a detailed Florida version rather than to copy the federal one. The federal law has served anti-corruption efforts well, but it appears headed for possible undoing by the U.S. Supreme Court for constitutionality concerns.

Making corruption laws as broad as possible would make it easier to catch crooked politicians engaged in all sorts of underhandedness. But it also leaves the door open for prosecutors to selectively enforce it.

And there's no reason for a broad, vague measure. If the state can delineate a whole book of driving statutes that dictate everything from when to use your headlights to where to park your car, surely it can specify what warrants a range of criminal behavior for public officials, from voting on issues where there's a personal financial stake to accepting bags stuffed with cash in exchange for a vote.

In fact, those are such no-brainer acts of criminal conduct, it's almost laughable that they're not already outlawed by state statute, and it says something about a neglectful Legislature that they're not.

A promising start

The good news is that the Legislature is poised to take up a nuanced measure that has a strong chance of holding elected officials to a higher standard, while also protecting against over-eager prosecution.

The bill, dubbed the "Restoring Faith in Public Office Act," would impose tough criminal sanctions on politicians who exhibit a corrupt intent and willfulness to avoid disclosing financial interests or other benefits in the course of their elected duties.

With a graduated scale of severity, from first-degree felonies to misdemeanors, the measure seems targeted and narrowly defined enough to ensure a level of fairness and to avoid vagueness concerns, and it specifically avoids criminalizing inadvertent behavior.

While it may require some tweaking over time, it presents a critical opportunity for the state to act where it has been deficient for so long, and to begin to rebuild the public's broken trust.

It's important to note, and for South Florida's citizenry to recognize, that the draft bill was written by the state attorneys from Broward and Palm Beach counties, Mike Satz and Michael McAuliffe. That's the kind of regional leadership the tri-county community has wanted to see for years.

The problem is that, so far, the legislation is largely a cause championed by South Florida Democrats — sponsored in the Senate by Sens. Dan Gelber of Miami and Nan Rich of Weston, and in the House by Rep. Ari Porth of Coral Springs. But for this important measure to have any hope of passage in a Republican-led Legislature, the Republican leadership must get on board.

It's not too early, with the spring session just weeks away, for Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-Jupiter, and House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, to declare their vigorous support for anti-corruption legislation. In fact, the right time for them to do so is now. Failure to join this critical effort would only invite speculation as to what GOP leaders are afraid of.

Money a key component

And it won't just be enough to pass a measure with teeth. Legislators must also show their commitment to rooting out corrupt and illegal behavior of all types by adequately funding prosecutors and public defenders. That doesn't even mean boosting their allotments, but state attorneys like McAuliffe said if they were spared further cuts, they could manage to keep the wheels of justice moving. Even with another tough budget year on the horizon, it seems a reasonable request for a vital public service.

Along the way, with new anti-corruption laws and funding in place to see them enforced, the public may just see new reason for hope.

In the meantime, politicians at all levels of government can't sit on the sidelines of this debate, and criminal law — whether on the state or federal level — must not be their only guide to appropriate conduct. As we have seen all too often, there are plenty of behaviors that pass legal muster but that will never pass the smell test. And politicians should be ever mindful of one thing: Voters have a very discriminating nose.




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