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Corruption scandals prompt full slate of ethics initiatives

Under indictment, Ray Sansom is no longer the only poster child for issues of ethics in Tallahassee and how business gets done.

ALEX LEARY | Times

Under indictment, Ray Sansom is no longer the only poster child for issues of ethics in Tallahassee and how business gets done.

For the first time since the blistering indictment of former House Speaker Ray Sansom and the legislative process as a whole, the buzzword in this town is "transparency."

The timing is not coincidental, given it's an election year when voter confidence and trust in politicians is reaching dismal depths.

And it reflects a broader problem: Sansom is no longer the only poster child.

Consider this string of recent corruption scandals: a guilty plea from Scott Rothstein, a South Florida Ponzi schemer and major political donor; the federal indictment of Alan Mendelsohn, a Capitol power player; an investigation of Harry Sergeant, a Republican money man with ties to Gov. Charlie Crist; and the accusations of misused funds at the state Republican Party.

The cumulative effect has prompted a full slate of ethics legislation for lawmakers to consider this year.

"The public trust has certainly eroded the confidence of elected officials in all," said Senate President Jeff Atwater, a Republican campaigning for chief financial officer. "They've seen things they rightly should be concerned about in the Legislature."

This attitude is reflected in the 2009 grand jury indictment of Sansom, a Panhandle Republican accused of using his power to funnel millions to a college where he later took a $110,000 part-time job.

"The present system has the potential to breed corruption and create an unfair advantage for those who have money to leverage influence on the Legislature," the indictment said.

Questions surrounding Sansom before last year's indictment led to a number of immediate — albeit largely procedural — changes to promote openness, such as a public airing of special budget language. And earlier this year, Senate leaders unveiled a Web site, transparencyflorida.gov, to provide "the means for 19 million Floridians to become 19 million auditors."

Such efforts, though important, are considered window dressing compared to proposed changes to the ethics laws. The question is whether the players who perpetuate the current system — lawmakers, lobbyists and an apathetic public — will change the game.

"I think the people are demanding that there be activities that are not politics as usual," said state Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland. "People want to trust and have integrity in their government."

Her bill, called the Restoring Trust in Government Act, would force lawmakers to abstain from voting or participating in legislation that benefits themselves, relatives or business associates. The measure does not carry a penalty for a violation.

A similar standard is codified in House rules but doesn't apply to the Senate. More than 20 states have such a law. Dockery, who is running for governor, introduced the bill two previous years but it never received a hearing.

"The fact that this bill has never before been given a hearing is clear evidence of the degree to which this process marginalizes reform-minded politicians, regardless of party," said Rep. Adam Fetterman, D-Port St. Lucie, the House co-sponsor.

State Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami, is a former federal corruption prosecutor who is proposing a package of reforms: stiffer penalties for crimes committed in an official capacity; prohibiting lawmakers from controlling political cash committees and tougher laws to combat bribery in the government contracts arena.

Another measure is a constitutional amendment to open the state budgeting process by forbidding a meeting of two lawmakers without providing a public meeting notice.

It would force lawmakers to operate by the same standards as a city council or county commission, where ethics laws are much more stringent.

"If two commissioners meet with a lobbyist (and don't provide notice) it's illegal," Gelber said. "Here, it's what happens. The rules are totally different up here."

Atwater and other top GOP leaders have made it clear they are considering these proposals but have not made any commitments.

In the Senate, the bills must start in the ethics committee, which is led by Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, a former House speaker and high-dollar lobbyist twice sanctioned for violating ethics rules.

And they must compete with a larger anathema to altering the system that Tallahassee knows so well.

Corruption scandals prompt full slate of ethics initiatives 02/24/10 [Last modified: Friday, February 26, 2010 2:44pm]

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