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Rick Scott promised big ethics reform, but nothing has happened

TALLAHASSEE — Long before the Legislature saw the need for new ethics laws, Gov. Rick Scott made a bold commitment to fight public corruption.

But he hasn't followed through.

On his first day in office in 2011, Scott issued an executive order that preserved an Office of Open Government and added a new code of conduct for everyone working for him that in some areas was stricter than state law.

The order also directed Scott's then-special counsel, Hayden Dempsey, to study a fresh statewide grand jury report on public corruption and push parts of it through the Legislature. But nothing came of it, even though Scott demanded in his campaign in 2010 that he be held accountable for his promises.

"This was a promise of the governor," said Dan Krassner of Integrity Florida. "Florida needs Gov. Scott's leadership on ethics reform."

Two years later, the grand jury's recommendations on what it called "an enormous issue, which is broad in scope and long in history" are still not law, though parts are in an ethics bill that passed the Senate on Tuesday.

That Senate bill leaves out many of the grand jury's strongest recommendations. They include making it a felony if an officeholder's unethical conduct is motivated by money; raising the maximum fine for an ethics violation from $10,000 to $100,000; allowing the Commission on Ethics to open investigations without complaints being filed, the same as 30 other states; and clamping down on bid-rigging. The grand jury said public corruption cases are too hard to prove under existing laws and when they are proven, the penalties are too soft.

After recent Times/Herald inquiries, Scott directed his general counsel, Peter Antonacci, to look back at why nothing happened.

"I've asked Pete to look at that," Scott said. "Any time you see corruption around the state, you ought to look at it and say, 'What can you do to make sure it doesn't happen again?' "

Antonacci said much of what the administration considers necessary is in the Senate ethics bill, SB 2, which is awaiting House action. "It's pretty good, and I'm sure the governor is going to support it," Antonacci said.

Ethics law expert Mark Herron, a lawyer who has done legal work for the Florida Democratic Party, had another theory for why the grand jury report went nowhere.

"It might have been a little gimmick on Day 1," Herron said. "I see no legal reason why it would have evaporated."

Any discussion of changes to state ethics laws in 2011 likely would have included Phil Claypool, who was then executive director of the Commission on Ethics.

"I do not remember any communications with the governor's office about the grand jury report and its recommendations for changes in the ethics laws," Claypool said. "That doesn't mean that it didn't happen, just that I don't recall anything like that."

Scott in effect missed an opportunity to own the anticorruption issue — and now the Florida Senate largely owns it. Scott may sign an ethics bill that ethics watchdogs consider too weak because it opens gaping new loopholes in laws they say are already too weak.

Krassner, of Integrity Florida, said that the Senate bill is a potential "disaster" and that Scott should consider vetoing it because of three major flaws. They include nebulous language involving blind trusts; giving elected officials a 60-day "re-do" to fix mistakes on financial disclosure forms; and a requirement that the Commission on Ethics dismiss complaints if the acts were the result of "inadvertent or unintentional error."

Claypool analyzed the Senate bill for Integrity Florida and said it would weaken current law — especially the provision regarding "unintentional" ethics violations. "Someone is being protected here, and it isn't the public," Claypool wrote in his analysis.

The statewide grand jury urged much the opposite: making voting conflicts that involve a financial gain second-degree felonies, including for legislators.

The grand jury, under the direction of the Office of Statewide Prosecutor, convened in 2010 at the urging of former Gov. Charlie Crist after a series of highly publicized public corruption cases. It issued its report on Dec. 29, 2010, one week before Scott took office.

On Jan. 4, 2011, Scott's Executive Order 11-03 directed his staff to "recommend a plan for implementing all or certain" of the grand jury's recommendations.

It was a tall order for Scott, who was new to governing and still assembling an inner circle of advisers, nearly all of whom were strangers to state government. Dempsey, a prominent lawyer and lobbyist before and after working for Scott, was one of the few who could navigate the bureaucracy.

Recalling the grand jury report, Dempsey said: "We looked at it, and we reviewed it. There were a lot of issues in the report, and we didn't feel we would be driving good public policy to rush to judgment on this." He said Scott's office never presented anything to the Legislature in the 2011 session.

On Thursday, Antonacci — Dempsey's successor — said it would be bad public policy for the state to criminalize ethics violations as the grand jury proposed. At the same time, Scott has imposed strict ethical standards on his own employees, including banning acceptance of gifts from anyone other than relatives.

Antonacci also said Scott's staff members are prohibited from drinking alcohol in public in any of the popular after-hours watering holes near the Capitol. "If it's any kind of gin mill activity, you're out," Antonacci said.

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

Rick Scott promised big ethics reform, but nothing has happened 03/07/13 [Last modified: Thursday, March 7, 2013 11:13pm]
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