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How to fix Florida's weak laws on public corruption

We're No. 1!

Florida led the nation in the number of public officials convicted in federal corruption cases from 1998 to 2007, according to a recent report.

In another tally, counting from 2000 forward, Florida still had more federal public corruption convictions than any other state.

First place. A source of state pride, surely.

This report comes from an outfit known as the Statewide Grand Jury, which spent last year looking at public corruption at the request of then-Gov. Charlie Crist.

The grand jury released its findings on Dec. 17, a week before Christmas — an easy time to get lost in the news.

But this 127-page report deserves ongoing attention. Take a look on Attorney General Pam Bondi's website: www.myfloridalegal.com. (Click the link titled, "Public Corruption.")

Although federal cases are plentiful, the grand jury found four main reasons that public corruption is not adequately policed in our state system:

• The act simply is not illegal under Florida law.

• The wording of the law is too vague for prosecutors to use.

• Punishments in the law are too lenient, or do not fit the crime.

• For those reasons, prosecutors tend to take plea deals or settle for other charges.

Hear, hear!

For example, you know the worst thing the Legislature ever did? It created something called a state "Code of Ethics."

Sounds good, and we brag about it. Yet most violations of this "ethics" code are not a crime. One of the grand jury's key recommendations is to make them so, especially on serious conflicts of interest.

We have a state Ethics Commission, but it's widely mocked as toothless. It can't even start its own cases — it has to wait for a citizen to file a complaint. That's another recommended change.

The maximum penalty for an ethics violation should rise from $10,000 to $100,000.

Our law is woefully behind the times when it comes to privatization. As a result, contractors and other agents of the government, clearly using tax dollars for a public function, have escaped prosecution because they are not defined as "public servants."

"The time has come," the grand jurors concluded, "for the Legislature to close this appalling loophole."

Even Florida's laws for the most serious corruption offenses are vague, the grand jury found — an act is not illegal without proof it was done "with corrupt intent." So several recommendations say: Just make the act illegal, and be done with it.

Here's one that practically made me stand up and cheer:

If you're a state vendor who commits a crime, you should be suspended from getting state business — and if you're guilty of a crime that directly relates to getting that state business, you're barred for life.

This only scratches the surface of the grand jury's report. It proposes a strong system for state inspectors general. It gives more power to the state Elections Commission. It toughens the rules for financial disclosure, and the penalty for violations. It says all public officers should undergo ethics training with annual refresher courses.

"The cadets at our nation's military academies swear an oath to neither lie, cheat, steal, nor tolerate those who do," the report says. "There is no reason we should hold our public officials to a lesser standard."

This brings us back to the Legislature. And here is what the Legislature has done with most such recommendations in the past:

Zip.

So if you run across your friendly local member of the House or Senate, I wish you'd go out of your way to say: Hey, have you read this grand jury report? What are you doing about it? No, don't mumble — what are you doing about it?

Let's keep tabs on what the Legislature does as it moves toward its annual session this spring. In the meantime, at least we're No. 1 in something.

How to fix Florida's weak laws on public corruption 01/08/11 [Last modified: Saturday, January 8, 2011 7:02pm]
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