Ethics reform is talked about – but rarely carried out

TALLAHASSEE -- Ethics reform is a frequently prescribed but seldom swallowed political tonic in Florida. Maybe that will change next year, but history and the alignment of politicians' incentives suggest otherwise.

Corruption and cries for reform have become a predictable two-step. When controversies erupt, policymakers advance tighter restrictions on their behavior or ability to extract benefits from the well-heeled interests cooing over them.

Now, incoming Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, says he wants to curb some of the abuses of recent years.

The last time lawmakers passed a wholesale ethics reform was 2005, when they banned lobbyist gifts to lawmakers. That push came after four industry-supportive GOP senators had taken a lobbyist-paid, $48,000 trip to a Magna Entertainment Corp. casino in Toronto.

But critics say that ban led lobbyists to instead pour cash into "Committees of Continuous Existence," which lawmakers can use to buy more lavish meals, trips and "party-building" high-living than they could get away with pre-reform.

Two weeks ago, former Sen. Mandy Dawson, D-Fort Lauderdale, began serving six months in federal prison for not paying taxes on under-the-table payments she got from South Florida lobbyist Alan Mendelsohn.

That influence-peddling scheme rattled Tallahassee, because Mendelsohn was a GOP fundraiser and political player through the Florida Medical Association. CCEs let the peddlers funnel the cash to lawmakers legally, although there are some restrictions on its use.

Gaetz – without naming names -- said he doesn't want legislators to "collect money into a CCE and then live off of it."

He also wants lawmakers to stop voting on bills when they have a conflict-of-interest -- and to declare those conflicts before a vote instead of 15 days afterward, as the law now requires.

In the December 2009 special session to authorize Central Florida's SunRail commuter train, Rep. Baxter Troutman, an heir to the Ben Hill Griffin Jr., agricultural empire, declared family business shareholders shouldn't vote because they had contracts with CSX Corp., the railroad selling the SunRail lines to the state. Those shareholders included Troutman's estranged cousin, Senate Budget Chairman J.D. Alexander, a prominent SunRail backer who got a legal opinion that he could vote for the bill.

Then there is the elephant in Gaetz's cross-hairs: Fellow Northwest Florida ex-lawmaker Ray Sansom, who resigned as House speaker in 2009 over shady appropriations he helped steer to a college that then hired him at a six-figure salary.

Gaetz wants to stop such "co-employment" situations, where legislators with access to public dollars get job offers from public agencies with need for those dollars.

"They somehow have this divinely inspired knowledge about education, and they get a job in public education. Shocking!" Gaetz said.

"It's what we in Okaloosa County call a walkin' around job."

Outgoing Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, was admonished last year by his chamber for failing to disclose a $400,000 investment home and other income. Afterward, he pushed an ethics bill to, among other things, ban lawmakers from taking side jobs in Florida's education system.

But, Sens. Steve Wise, R-Jacksonville, Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, and Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, killed it, while lambasting the media and the lobbyist gift-ban.

Gaetz was a co-sponsor of last year's deep-sixed ethics bill, and his power ensures the idea will re-surface. But history suggests it must overcome well-fed politicians unwilling to stop the gravy train while they have a seat.

adeslatte@tribune.com or 850-222-5564

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