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Some conflicts of interest

Florida has a part-time citizen Legislature, composed of people of varied backgrounds from teachers to real estate agents to funeral directors.

"We don't want full-time legislators, and I'm glad we're not like Congress," says House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park.

Such professional diversity gives lawmaking a real-world component in Tallahassee but also leads to conflicts of interest for legislators who earn $29,000 a year.

As the saying goes, the fox is often guarding the henhouse.

Educators routinely vote for and against bills that affect schools. Lawyers vote on bills affecting the legal profession. Medical professionals help write laws affecting doctors, hospitals and clinics. Many legislators work for colleges and universities that depend on state appropriations. And some work for phone and electric utilities regulated by the state.

A statewide grand jury on public corruption in Florida concluded that the conflict of interest law is too weak and should be strengthened to restore faith in government.

"Voting conflicts of interest should be criminally punished," the grand jury report says. "When a public official has a conflict, he or she should step aside and disclose the conflict. The only benefit the public official should receive is for the public, not for the public official or anyone else."

• • •

In city and county government, officials must abstain from voting on matters that could benefit them personally, but the rules are different in Tallahassee.

Senators and representatives are allowed to vote on matters in which they have a financial stake as long as they disclose it up to 15 days after the vote is cast. And Florida ethics laws say it's legal for elected officials to vote on matters that affect their own professions.

During the past five years, dozens of legislators have filed voting conflict forms in cases where they had conflicts of interest.

• Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, has extensive agricultural business interests and sponsored and voted for a 2010 bill that he said could have affected his business, Blue Head Farms. The bill allowed landowners to keep agricultural tax exemptions for longer periods of time.

• Rep. Esteban Bovo, R-Hialeah, voted to shield his employer, Miami Children's Hospital, from budget cuts.

• Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, has a stake in Caregivers Inc., a company that gets Medicaid money that Gaetz voted to appropriate.

• Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, works for a law firm that serves as bond counsel to the local expressway authority, and voted on a bill affecting sale of authority bonds.

• Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, a chiropractor, voted to confirm the appointment of his son to the Board of Chiropractic Medicine.

• Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, took the extreme step of resigning from a House budget committee that oversaw the state lottery at a time when her husband, TV executive Mike Vasilinda, had a contract with the lottery.

Legislators who practice law are required to file quarterly forms disclosing clients of the firm represented before state government.

Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, who works for the Gunster law firm, last month filed a list of 59 clients, including U.S. Sugar Corp.; the GEO Group, a private prison operator; Florida Power & Light; and racetracks, cities, real estate firms and utilities.

Five of the 11 members of the Senate Health Regulation Committee hold outside jobs in the medical field.

The committee's chairman, Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, works for a medical college. Sens. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, and Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, work for hospitals — jobs both men obtained after joining the Legislature.

Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, is married to a dermatologist, and Sen. Jones, R-Seminole, is a chiropractor.

All were appointed by Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island.

"We have a citizen Legislature and that's the good and the bad that you're going to get. That's how it works," Haridopolos said. "People are on committees they really want to be on, and I really try to respect that."

He said the machinery of lawmaking prevents conflicts from having any impact because bills must pass three committees before reaching the floor.

• • •

For years, the Florida Commission on Ethics has asked for stronger laws to limit voting conflicts by legislators. But the proposal rarely gets a committee hearing, let alone a floor vote.

This year, the commission is asking lawmakers to allow it to initiate its own investigations and increase penalties for certain violations. Another recommendation is to strengthen the voting conflict law to prevent lawmakers and other elected officials from voting on matters that benefit an employer's corporate "sibling" or related business.

Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, says lawmakers with conflicts can use their influence to sway other members to vote their way.

"That person is twisting arms behind the scenes," said Dockery, who has repeatedly filed bills to address the issue. "If that person can somehow trade you something for your vote, it's the behind-the-scenes lobbying that's really damaging."

Cannon, the House speaker and a lawyer, said the diverse professional skills of legislators is an asset, not a liability. He used as an example a newly elected Republican House member from Tampa.

"Dana Young, a freshman, is a very talented land use lawyer. People are going to look to her for guidance on growth management," Cannon said. "She's a competent professional who knows a particular subject matter."

The system of lawmaking itself serves as a "check" on unethical conduct, Cannon said, because legislators scrutinize each others' motivations, especially where tax money is concerned.

Critics of the system have essentially given up trying to get legislators to pass tougher conflict of interest laws.

"Florida has one of the weakest conflict-of-interest standards as it pertains to legislators because they are part-time," said Ben Wilcox of the League of Women Voters. "Bankers sit on committees regulating banks. It's obvious they are making votes that could potentially benefit themselves through their profession. That's the trade-off that we've accepted for having a citizen-based Legislature."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Some conflicts of interest 02/25/11 [Last modified: Saturday, February 26, 2011 3:46pm]

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