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Scofflaws frustrate Florida ethics watchdogs

The Florida Commission on Ethics has suffered its share of criticism over the years for being feckless, a toothless tiger.

Such criticism has a cheap-shot quality. The small watchdog agency is limited by the power it gets from the Legislature, which writes the ethics laws that govern elected officials.

Nine citizens serve on the Ethics Commission — a closely balanced group of Republicans and Democrats chosen by the governor, Senate president and House speaker. A couple of recent developments in Ethics Land suggest that the current group is unwilling to be a lapdog for people who thumb their noses at ethics in government.

Both developments involve a law that dates to 1976 when Reubin Askew was governor. He led a statewide petition drive to force candidates, elected officials and many appointees to reveal information about their personal finances as a check against potential conflicts of interest.

Not everybody takes financial disclosure as seriously as the Ethics Commission does.

The agency is being sued by the Gasparilla Island Bridge Authority, which runs the toll bridge to the exclusive retreat of Boca Grande in Lee County.

The Bridge Authority is fighting a 2009 law that requires bridge and expressway authority members to file a detailed financial disclosure form, Form 6, which reveals assets and liabilities, property and sources of income.

The authority's attorney, Terry Lewis, said the board is a small, single-purpose authority, and financial disclosure is "onerous" and "abusive." Members have always been willing to file the simpler, one-page Form 1, which requires only income sources.

Ethics commissioners were appalled that the Gasparilla Island board asked for a 45-day time extension before filing their latest statements.

They rejected the request.

"It's time for these folks to comply with the law," Ethics Commissioner Susan Maurer said.

The story gets worse. At its meeting last Friday, the commission had no choice but to write off another big pile of uncollectable fines from public officials who did not bother to file their annual financial disclosure forms. The amount lost: $676,407.45.

The state hires collection agencies to track down scofflaws, but the filing requirement has a four-year statute of limitations. It's easy to game the system: Refuse to pay the fine, and wait out the clock.

Dozens of these people still hold office. Many serve on zoning and code boards, and three are from Tampa Bay — Belleair Shore Town Commissioner Robert E. Schmidt Jr., Safety Harbor code board member Curtis McCoy II and Hillsborough County schools employee Kim C. Pietsch.

One legislator made the list: Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, whose $1,500 fine is from when he was a legislative staffer, not an elected official.

Ethics commissioners asked themselves how they force these people to obey the law. One idea: block active officeholders from qualifying to run again until they pay up. Such a change would require legislative approval.

The commission's executive director, a 20-year veteran of prosecution ethics violations, says lobbying the Legislature on the subject of ethics is "a very frustrating process, and very, very time-consuming." Virlindia Doss added that the agency has a responsibility to "to promote good ethics laws."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com.

Scofflaws frustrate Florida ethics watchdogs 09/12/11 [Last modified: Monday, September 12, 2011 11:18pm]
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