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Bousquet column: Scott, Crist use state ethics panels to swap political charges

Florida voters, you can stay home.

The campaigns of Republican Gov. Rick Scott and Democrat Charlie Crist apparently have decided to put the future of Florida in the hands of only 18 people.

Those are the appointees (mostly Scott's) to the Commission on Ethics and the Florida Elections Commission.

The workloads of both nine-member panels keep piling up as the campaigns make a mockery of what's supposed to be the serious business of enforcing the state's ethics and elections laws.

Both sides are filing more and more complaints, then leaking them to newspapers and TV stations, which publish stories about them, which creates fresh headlines that can become fodder for mail pieces and TV ads to make it look like his opponent is unethical.

There's just one problem. The filing of an ethics complaint against an official or a candidate is meaningless. It's an accusation, nothing more, and it's not likely that most of the current crop of complaints will be resolved before the election.

"It's kind of a necessary evil," said Virlindia Doss, executive director of the Commission on Ethics. "You want people to be able to file complaints. You want people to have their First Amendment rights to free expression. But the fact that a complaint has been filed means virtually nothing."

The latest was last week when Scott got hit with an elections complaint by a Crist supporter over the presence of on-duty police at a Scott campaign event, which is not allowed by law. Scott's people said they told all invitees that it was political but a colonel in the Hillsborough County sheriff's office disagreed.

Scott also faces complaints over his campaign's reporting of the cost of a family-owned jet and the decision to shift $27 million in campaign funds to a new committee.

Crist has been slapped with complaints over his financial disclosure form, his ties to his employers at the Morgan & Morgan law firm and even a NASCAR racer's brief sponsorship of his candidacy.

It's worth noting that in the previous race for governor, Republican Bill McCollum and Democrat Alex Sink faced ethics complaints over their use of state airplanes on trips that sometimes were official, political and personal. The allegations were based on reports by the Times/Herald and in both cases, the Ethics Commission dismissed the charges because the law bars officials from using airplanes "solely" for political reasons.

McCollum and Sink were cleared, but that didn't stop TV ads that accused both of airplane abuses.

Besides trivializing the complaint process itself, what's happening now is a blasphemous way to revere the memory of the late Gov. Reubin Askew, who championed creation of the Ethics Commission and demanded higher standards of conduct for Florida public officials.

But it's the state of our politics in Florida in 2014 as Scott and Crist race to the bottom.

By the way, I did not literally mean voters should stay home and skip the election.

On the contrary, your vote is critical. I was simply trying to grab your attention — you know, the way some politicians do when they file ethics complaints against their opponents in the midst of a campaign.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.

Bousquet column: Scott, Crist use state ethics panels to swap political charges 07/14/14 [Last modified: Monday, July 14, 2014 6:46pm]
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