The Buzz

From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

In letter, Florida ethics chairman asks for reform

12

October

Florida's ethics panel asks the Legislature for reforms each year, and somehow the recommendations never pass. But there seems to be a renewed hope this year after incoming Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, publicly touted reform.  

Here's a letter from Florida Commission on Ethics Chairman Matt Carlucci on which reforms he'd like to see pass.

The Florida Commission on Ethics has proposed a number of important ethics reforms to the Florida Legislature this year, and I'd like to talk about four which merit special attention. 

The first would enhance enforcement for collection of automatic fines. Here is the problem: if a financial disclosure is not filed on time an automatic fine accrues at $25 per day, to a maximum of $1,500.  Private collections agencies are supposed to collect these fines, but if they can't, and the fine is not paid within the four-year statute of limitations, the delinquent official cannot be forced to pay.  State law mandates financial disclosure requirement by law, and it should be enforced.  It should be noted that most people—99%—file on time; however, there are still hundreds of public officials, some still serving, who have not paid.  The Commission proposes to address this problem by recording its final orders in automatic fine cases as a lien on real and personal property, and having the Department of Financial Services, which currently assigns the cases to a collection agency, assign them instead to a collections attorney.  Representative Charles McBurney is sponsoring a bill that would accomplish this. 

The second proposal would allow referrals from the Governor’s Office, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, State Attorney’s offices, and the Chief Financial Officer.  Agencies sometimes deal with wrongdoing that falls short of a criminal act, but which they feel warrants review by the Commission, and this would give them a limited mechanism for triggering that review.  Referrals would have to meet a higher standard than sworn complaints—the allegations would have to be recommended as legally sufficient by staff, and a super-majority vote by the Commission would be required in order to investigate. 

The third proposal deals with the conditions under which an accused official who prevails in an ethics complaint can recover his costs from the person who complained.  For years, the Commission interpreted the standard for recovery as "actual malice"—the same standard applied to the press in libel cases.  In 2007, the courts called that standard into question, resulting in a chilling effect on complaints and a greater number of petitions for attorney fees.  The Commission believes citizens who file complaints should not have greater exposure to a lawsuit than does the media, and would like to see the "actual malice" standard restored.

The last proposal would modify the voting conflict law as it applies to state-level appointed officials.  Currently, such officials are allowed to vote, even when they have a conflict.  The Commission recommends making the voting conflict standard for appointed state officials the same as for local appointed officials: declare the conflict before participating, abstain, and file a voting conflict memo afterward.

Although I am the newest member, I have long been familiar with the Commission on Ethics and with the historic giants of public service who put this body in place to accomplish noble purposes.  My fellow members are an impressive group supported by a very competent professional staff, and I can attest the Commission has more teeth than given credit for.  The Commission has a number of other legislative recommendations, all of which are excellent.  However, to me, the four outlined here seem particularly practical, workable, and important.  I submit this letter for the information of your readers and to encourage them to contact their State Representative or Senator for support.

Respectfully submitted,

Matt Carlucci

 

 

 
 

[Last modified: Friday, October 12, 2012 6:56pm]

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