Florida's Commission on Ethics seeks more power, autonomy

TALLAHASSEE — Criticized as a toothless tiger, the Commission on Ethics wants more authority to investigate and punish wayward officials in Florida.

The watchdog agency wants to seize the moment at a time when a string of scandals has seized public attention and a statewide grand jury is launching a major public corruption inquiry.

But only the Legislature can expand or restrict the commission's powers. Legislators have long been wary of giving the agency more clout, partly out of a fear that it would lead to witch hunts aimed at lawmakers themselves.

"This state has been rocked by ethics scandals from one end to the other over the past year," said Cheryl Forchilli of Tampa, head of the bipartisan, nine-member commission. "The public consciousness has really been raised to the level of corruption and unethical practices. If there's ever been political will, it's going to be now. We've attempted to craft proposals that don't overreach."

The past year has brought indictments against a state legislator, a Broward County commissioner and School Board member and a prominent Hollywood lobbyist, and a wide-ranging criminal inquiry into a major Broward County fundraiser that has seen federal agents questioning senators.

But much of the ethics commission's time appears to involve petty violations or small-town politics — like a case involving a Little League umpire fired by the town of Century's recreation department.

The commission is promoting a package of proposed legislative changes, including:

• Giving the commission staff power to initiate investigations based on "reliable and publicly disseminated information" and without a formal complaint being filed, as the law now requires. Such investigations would require a supermajority vote by the full commission (at least six of nine members).

• Imposing a tenfold increase in the maximum fine for violations, from $10,000 to $100,000.

• Lowering the burden of proof for a violation, from the current standard of clear and convincing evidence to a preponderance of the evidence.

"Any watchdog agency that has no ability to initiate an investigation is just inherently limited in how effective it can be," Forchilli said.

A similar proposal has been advanced in previous years with no action by a resistant Legislature.

"All these things are generally dead on arrival," said Mark Herron, a lawyer who represents public officials accused of ethics violations and who served on the commission in the 1980s.

He opposes most of the proposed changes to the ethics laws.

"By reducing the burden of proof, you're doing a disservice to the entire process," Herron said. "If you're going to damage someone's reputation and call them a corrupt public official, you ought to have a clear and convincing standard."

Raising the maximum fine to $100,000 makes no sense, he said, noting that the maximum fine for a life felony in Florida is $15,000 (though such crimes also carry lengthy prison terms).

Forchilli said that the current fines are laughably low and that the agency needs a much broader range of potential fines to mete out appropriate penalties. She noted corruption cases in South Florida involving tens of millions of dollars.

"A $2,000 fine for an ethics violation becomes a cost of doing business," Forchilli said.

Any proposed changes to the ethics laws will be reviewed by the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee — which is chaired by freshman Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who has extensive firsthand experience with the subject.

Thrasher has been cited twice for ethics violations, once as a House member for illegally representing a client for a state agency and later for lobbying the Legislature less than two years after leaving office.

As a Clay County commissioner in 2006, Thrasher was cleared by the commission of an ethics allegation after he voted to award a contract to a garbage firm he had represented as a lobbyist.

As House speaker in 1999, Thrasher blocked legislation that would have beefed up the ethics commission's power, saying it could lead to "witch hunts."

Thrasher promised to keep an open mind, but said he did not know enough about the proposals to comment in detail.

He said his priorities at the moment are confirming hundreds of political appointees of Gov. Charlie Crist and changing the way legislative leaders can raise campaign money.

"We've got to have an ethics commission. I certainly agree with that," Thrasher said. "If they have some ideas to make it better, it's something we'll certainly look at."

Forchilli says the time is now to give her agency more authority.

"I think the legislative leadership, in the current climate, should be ready to lead the charge to make these changes," she said. "That is our hope."

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

.Fast facts

Its role, structure

The Florida Commission on Ethics interprets and applies Florida's ethics laws. Its nine members are appointed to two-year terms. Five members are named by the governor, two by the president of the Senate and two by the speaker of the House. The commission must be bipartisan. Members serve without pay.

Florida's Commission on Ethics seeks more power, autonomy 12/12/09 [Last modified: Saturday, December 12, 2009 10:50pm]

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