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Senate moves to broaden state's ethics laws

TALLAHASSEE — A scathing grand jury report on public corruption in Florida is spurring the Senate to broaden the state's ethics laws.

But even senators say the changes don't go far enough.

SB 2088 bars legislators from voting on any bill or amendment that would "inure to his or her special private gain or loss." The restriction would also apply to a lawmaker's employer, relative, business associate or board upon which the lawmaker serves. A legislator would have to publicly state to the body or to a committee "all interests" and "all known interests" of others similarly affected.

The Senate Rules Subcommittee on Ethics and Elections unanimously approved the bill Monday.

"What we are trying to say is, be responsive to the statewide grand jury report on public corruption," said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine. "We need to increase the standards."

Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, voted for the bill, but said it was "a lot weaker" because it would still allow lawmakers with conflicts to participate in behind-the-scenes discussions of bills, including "arm-twisting" of colleagues.

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said a tougher voting conflict law is needed, and cited a string of political scandals in northwest Florida.

"Too many politicians are getting into too much hot water," he said. "We need to push toward higher standards."

Whether the House will go along with the Senate is unclear. The House version, HB 1071 by Rep. Fred Costello, R-Ormond Beach, has not been heard in any committee.

Some senators who are lawyers voiced worry about being unwittingly "trapped" by a voting conflict, noting they cannot possibly be aware of all of their law partners' clients' interests.

"I don't want it to render me ineffective," said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, a lawyer, "and there I am, all splashed in the media about having an alleged violation."

Also contained in the Senate's ethics bill is a requirement that the Commission on Ethics review lawmakers' annual financial disclosure statements and let them know if they comply with the law.

"Obviously, when we had the issue come before us, we found out that there could be an enormous number of potential technical violations in those financial disclosures," Thrasher said. "So if there's an opportunity to cure, we ought to have an opportunity to do that, before something becomes final."

The provision follows the admonishment of Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, in February for failing to list a $400,000 investment home in Mount Dora and the names of clients of his consulting business over a five-year period. Haridopolos, a candidate for U.S. Senate, apologized for the omissions.

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

Senate moves to broaden state's ethics laws 04/04/11 [Last modified: Monday, April 4, 2011 8:44pm]
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