Study rates Florida ethics, ‘corruptibility’

Study rates Florida ethics, ‘corruptibility’

Updated: Monday, 19 Mar 2012, 6:35 PM EDT
Published : Monday, 19 Mar 2012, 3:44 PM EDT

TAMPA – Florida received a grade of C-minus, but that was still good enough to tie for 18th best with three other states in a first-of-its-kind assessment of corruptibility released Monday.

The report praises Florida’s open-records and open-meetings “Sunshine” laws.

It faults the state, though, for weak regulation of lobbyists, toothless ethics enforcement for public officials and high fees that in some cases prevent citizens from getting to see those much-lauded open records.

The State Integrity Investigation was conducted by the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization; Public Radio International; and Global Integrity, a research organization also headquartered in Washington.

“Most states and the federal government require registered lobbyists to make public what issues or actions they seek to influence,” the report says. “Florida does not.”

Florida lobbyists also aren’t required to report what agencies, lawmakers or staffers they are lobbying, nor are they obligated to disclose how much they spend.

They must identify clients and say how much they get paid in broad dollar ranges, but unlike federal lobbyists they don’t have to give exact figures.

The report quotes former Florida Ethics Commission executive director and general counsel Phil Claypool as saying a deeper flaw is that relatively few people must register as lobbyists because the state’s definition of lobbying is like “Swiss cheese”—filled with holes.

Florida’s definition appears to exempt corporate employees while some government agencies such as water management districts exploit loopholes to avoid registration and disclosure requirements.

Water managers say that as independent taxing districts they are exempt. Enforcement of lobbying regulation also is minimal.

“The law contemplates audits, but they are not done,” Claypool said, citing high cost and the unwillingness of private accountants to do such limited audits.

Irregularities are seldom found. When they are, it’s up to the Legislature to investigate.

It takes a sworn complaint to get an investigation started. The maximum fine is $5,000, but a violator also could be prohibited from lobbying for up to two years. Penalties can be imposed only by majority vote of the House or Senate.

“It’s set up so it’s a wink and a nod,” said Edwin Bender, executive director of the nonprofit, nonpartisan National Institute on Money in State Politics, also as quoted in the report.

With a number grade of 71, Florida ties with Kentucky, Pennsylvania and North Carolina in 18th place. New Jersey tops the list with a B-plus. Georgia ranks last with an F.

Ethics enforcement for Florida’s public officials also is weak. The Florida Ethics Commission cannot initiate investigations, acting only after getting a sworn complaint. The Judicial Qualifications Commission can initiate investigations of judges but rarely does, executive director Brooke Kennerly said in the report.

Neither panel can take final action. Both make recommendations, the judicial commission to the Florida Supreme Court and the ethics panel to the governor or in the case of lawmakers to the House or Senate.

The report notes a statewide grand jury in 2010 criticized the Ethics Commission’s civil fine structure, saying the $10,000 maximum was too low. It recommended $100,000 as a stronger deterrent.

Mark Herron, a Tallahassee lawyer who handles ethics cases, disagreed, pointing out public officials also can face criminal prosecution for such acts of corruption as bribery. He also said current ethics penalties are sufficient.

“Getting whacked for $10,000 and being branded as an unethical guy, is that significant?” Herron asked in the report.

The analysis also questions the independence of both commissions. Ethics Commission members are political appointees, some by the governor and others by legislative leaders. Most members of the judicial panel are judges and lawyers.

The report quotes Patricia Gleason, special counsel for open government in the Florida attorney general’s office, as saying costs for obtaining public records can vary wildly.

“So much depends on the type of computer system the agencies have,” Gleason said. “Ask for emails in one jurisdiction and you might be charged $25. In another because a computer system is out of date, it might be $200.”