Tampa Bay opposition kills Gannett papers' anti-corruption bill
Two Republican senators from Tampa Bay joined with a South Florida Democrat Monday to kill an anti-corruption bill championed by Gannett newspapers in Florida.
Sens. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and John Legg, R-Trinity, sided with Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, to sink the bill, which would define private companies that have government contracts as public servants to make it easier for prosecutors to prove intent in cases of bribery, bid-rigging and other crimes against taxpayers.
Latvala questioned Gannett's ethics and said it was "wrong" for a newspaper to advocate and actively lobby for legislation.
"I'm very, very concerned with a newspaper that editorializes in support of candidates coming in here and pushing us to do something like this, and making me feel somehow or other like I'm a crook if I don't vote for this," Latvala said. "I've never seen an editorial writer up here doing this type of thing. Maybe that's how we sell newspapers these days, I don't know."
Media outlets lobby for and against bills that affect their business interests, such as legal advertising, and they pay lobbyists to oppose public records exemptions. But it is highly extraordinary for a working journalist to actually lobby for or testify on legislation.
The editorial page editor of Gannett-owned Florida Today in Melbourne, Matt Reed, who testified Monday, said later that he didn't say anything in the Capitol that he hasn't said on radio, TV or in his own paper.
"At no point in any committee stop have I ever heard anybody acknowledge the problem of corruption," Reed told reporters. "The only concern I've heard, from beginning to end, is about contractors in their districts. Why is that? Not even lip service."
Gannett's other Florida dailies are in Tallahassee, Pensacola and Fort Myers.
A statewide grand jury had recommended the anti-corruption bill, sponsored by Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. "I'm very disappointed in the vote," Gaetz said. "It's a defeat for raising the standard of public conduct and public ethics in this state."
Florida's 20 elected state attorneys supported the bill, and their long-time lobbyist, Buddy Jacobs, testified for it Monday, saying that the bill's language still posed an "extraordinary burden" in proving public corruption.
But the opposition by the three senators doomed the bill in the five-member Senate Government Oversight and Accountability Committee, whose chairman, Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, also voted no so that he could use a procedural maneuver to technically keep the bill alive. But Gaetz called prospects for passage "very grim."
Gaetz and Latvala clashed bitterly in October as part of the fallout over court battles over redistricting and Latvala's candidacy for Senate president, but Gaetz said he "hoped" that wasn't a factor Monday. He noted that Latvala in the past has championed stronger ethics laws.