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Grand jury calls for reform, citing pervasive government corruption

TALLAHASSEE — Saying corruption is "pervasive at all levels of government,'' a statewide grand jury released a report Wednesday calling for reforms to combat "mismanagement and theft'' by public officials.

"Fraud, waste and abuse of state resources'' punishes taxpayers by driving up the cost of services, the panel said. They called for the repeal of what they dubbed "Florida's Corruption Tax."

The grand jury used the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to underscore the depth of the problem. In that agency, supervisors flagrantly circumvented purchasing rules, a practice that become common knowledge and prompted other employees to act unethically, the panel says.

"We were told employees would steal items such as flat screen televisions from the office. Depending upon the position of the employee, the supervisor often took no action," the report says. "Due to the unethical conduct at the supervisory level, a systemic acceptance of corruption was born."

The panel urges the Florida Legislature to address public corruption in the upcoming session. Among the recommendations in the 127-page report:

• Expand the definition of public employees to include private employees participating in government contracts.

• Require lawmakers to abstain from votes if they stand to gain or lose money as a result of the vote's outcome.

• Authorize the Ethics Commission to initiate investigations and give it the power to levy fines of up to $100,000.

• Require the governor, lieutenant governor and each Cabinet member to put all their private financial interests into blind trusts.

• Strengthen bid tampering rules by, among other things, banning the practice of splitting bids into smaller work orders to avoid the competitive bid process.

• Ban for life any contractor or vendor from doing business with the state if the person has been convicted of a public theft or procurement crime.

• Ban so-called "three-pack" political advertisements that allow political parties to pay for ads that candidates do not have to report as expenditures.

• Require candidates to live in a district when they announce their intention to run for office.

The grand jury was convened in Fort Lauderdale in February at the request of Gov. Charlie Crist after a spate of high-profile arrests of public officials and major campaign contributors in South Florida.

Former state House Speaker Ray Sansom resigned in 2009 after he was charged with manipulating the state budget to benefit a campaign contributor and Panhandle college that then gave him a job. His trial is pending.

In South Florida, a rash of corruption cases culminated with the arrest of fundraising powerhouse Alan Mendelsohn, a Hollywood, Fla., eye doctor and onetime Crist supporter who pleaded guilty this month to a charge that he conspired to bilk the U.S. government and secretly gave a former state senator $82,000 in political donations.

Also, Jim Greer, Crist's hand-picked chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, was charged in June with six counts of money laundering, theft and fraud.

The report notes that if all the federal corruption convictions in Florida between 1998 and 2007 were added together, they top 800, more than in any other state in the nation.

State Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who replaced Greer as chairman of the state Republican Party, said the Senate would "take a hard look" at the report.

"I'm sure these are serious and well thought out recommendations that we will take seriously," Thrasher said.

In the House, several different committees could look at the report, including the House Government Operations Committee. Chairman Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, said he would discuss with House Speaker Dean Cannon what issues to address.

"It's definitely a sensitive subject," Patronis said.

To support its recommendation to subject private contractors to public corruption laws, the report cited the case of a nonprofit organization that awarded state money to a company later accused of bid-rigging, kickbacks and bribery. The grand jury said even if the nonprofit's leaders had been guilty of criminal wrongdoing, they couldn't have been charged under Florida ethics rules because its employees aren't officially "public servants."

The panel also heard from witnesses concerned about private prison guards accepting bribes but avoiding prosecution because they don't work in a state-run prison.

"All of this is frustrating and absurd," the report says. "It is clear that any entity which contracts to perform services for the state must be held accountable for any violation of criminal laws."

Regarding the Legislature's own rules, the panel said when a public official casts a vote that is a conflict of interest — one that would lead to private gain or loss — that should be a crime.

"The public is tired of officials who abuse their position or ignore conflicts of interest," the report reads. "While Florida has not criminalized voting conflicts of interest, other states have."

Under current Florida statutes, state lawmakers don't have to reveal that a vote might have benefited them personally until 15 days after the vote occurs. And the report cites a double standard, noting that the law forbids local officials altogether from voting on any issues that benefit them personally.

Witnesses said state lawmakers needed looser standards because they vote on so many things it would be hard to keep track of which votes impact them personally, the report said.

"We find this to be an insufficient reason," the report says.

If lawmakers don't want to go so far as to criminalize those conflicts, the panel recommends at least forbidding legislators from voting on matters in which they have a financial interest.

Former state Sen. Dan Gelber, a Democrat from Miami Beach who several times pushed for stronger ethics rules, is skeptical that the grand jury report will make a difference even though it's full of good ideas.

"The problem has not been the ideas. It's been the unwillingness of the Legislature to really reform itself and public offices around the state," he said. "The Legislature refuses to seriously address public corruption. I commend the grand jury for cataloging a lot of the ideas. At the end of the day, unless there's the political will to implement them, it will be meaningless."

The grand jury acknowledged that very point. "We cannot ignore the reality that it is often hard to impose more severe restrictions on one's own interests," the jury wrote.

But the need for reform is critical, they said, adding: "When the legislature fails to act after its own members flagrantly abuse their positions, the citizens lose respect, faith and interest in government.''

Lawmakers will have at least one shot in the 2011 session at addressing concepts addressed in the report.

State Sen. Paula Dockery, a Republican from Lakeland, filed a bill that would ban lawmakers from voting on legislation that would benefit them, their family members or employers. She calls it the Restoring Trust in Government Act.

Janet Zink can be reached at [email protected]

Grand jury calls for reform, citing pervasive government corruption 12/29/10 [Last modified: Thursday, December 30, 2010 10:27am]
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