Sunday, February 25, 2018
Politics

Ethics reform is long overdue in Tallahassee

Every state legislator has to attend a class to learn the don'ts of holding office.

Ethics 101.

One day last week, House members heard their lawyer instruct them on how not to behave.

"Don't mention that you're a member of the Legislature to try to get out of that ticket," counsel Dan Nordby said, using an all-too-real example of a lawmaker behaving badly.

No, Nordby said, you can't take free food and drinks from lobbyists, and you can't solicit money from them for a pet charity.

Nordby began his presentation with this from the state Constitution: "A public office is a public trust. The people shall have the right to secure and sustain that trust against abuse."

The words appeared on a screen in oversized type. But if history is a guide, someone will spectacularly ignore this lesson and set a terrible example for other lawmakers.

In the past few months alone, one House member resigned after being listed as a client of an Orlando brothel. Another faces an ethics inquiry for allegedly filing false net worth statements. A third, former House member David Rivera of Miami, who lost his seat in Congress, faces 11 charges of unethical conduct, including hiding a $1 million consulting deal with a gambling firm while in the state Legislature.

But there may be cause for optimism. A new sense of outrage is coming from, of all places, the Legislature itself, which seems determined to set higher ethical standards and improve the institution's reputation.

A Senate committee today will take up an ethics bill that among other things would force lawmakers to abstain from voting in cases where they have conflicts of interest, require that they post their personal net worth statements online, require four-hour ethics courses for local officials such as sheriffs and school board members, allow the state to garnish officials' wages if they don't pay ethics fines and prevent them from taking public jobs after they join the Legislature.

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, used the example of a lawmaker who gets elected, snags a seat on the education committee and suddenly becomes an expert, leading to a paid job at a college or school district.

"That's just a little bit too convenient," Gaetz said on the public TV broadcast Florida Face to Face.

Gaetz also noted that the state last year wrote off about $800,000 in unpaid fines and penalties by nose-thumbing public officers.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, agrees with Gaetz that the Legislature needs higher ethical standards. The House has a workshop scheduled on ethics reform proposals Wednesday.

The state Commission on Ethics' next meeting is Friday in Tallahassee.

On the agenda is an item to refer a batch of new cases to a collection agency involving officials who have refused to pay fines, including three Senate staffers, a university trustee and a former press aide for Gov. Rick Scott.

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