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Tea party picks up ethics issue as Gov. Scott retreats

TALLAHASSEE — On Rick Scott's first day as governor, he declared ethics and integrity "essential to maintaining the public trust" and ordered his office to find ways to implement suggestions from a grand jury assembled to investigate public corruption.

More than 10 months later, there appears to be no plan.

That frustrates some tea party activists who propelled Scott to victory. They believed Scott was talking about ethics reform in all those campaign ads where he blasted "Tallahassee insiders."

"He led Florida voters to think he was going to be a strong proponent of ethics reform, and his record shows he's very weak," said Nick Egoroff, a tea party activist from Orlando. "I haven't heard him say one word on it."

A pair of Republican senators who have been unable to push ethics reform through the GOP-controlled Legislature also said they were "disappointed" in Scott.

"Sometimes we hear one thing from him and his administration and they never follow through," said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey.

Some grand jury recommendations mirrored a proposal that Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, has been unable to pass for four years in Tallahassee. She said Scott's office has not contacted her about the legislation.

"I'm not surprised, but I am disappointed," Dockery said.

Scott declined to comment on the status of his executive order.

"We're doing the right things," he said.

Scott spokesman Brian Burgess said that after reviewing the grand jury report — which called for tougher conflict-of-interest laws and campaign finance regulations, among other things — Scott's office determined that all the suggestions would require legislation. He did not explain why Scott has not pushed for lawmakers to pass an ethics bill.

After his free-wheeling, $80 million campaign, the businessman-turned-politician has struggled with the sometimes cumbersome checks-and-balances built into state government. A status update on the four executive orders he signed his first day in office gives a glimpse of his learning curve:

Order 1: Halt all new rules and regulations at executive state agencies.

Update: A state court suspended the order, ruling Scott overstepped the constitutional separation of powers.

Order 2: Verify the immigration status of all state workers and those employed by private companies that contract with the state.

Update: Federal rules stipulate that E-Verify, the database used to check immigration, can be used only for new hires. Scott amended the order to apply only to new government employees and workers a company hires while it is under contract with the state.

Order 3: Included several directives on ethics and transparency.

Update: Scott re-established the Office of Open Government and has a new code of ethics in his office that in some cases, such as the gift ban, exceeds the minimum requirements under law. But he has not issued new orders or suggested legislation that would implement the grand jury report.

Order 4: Reaffirm the Governor's Office's commitment to diversity in government.

Update: Scott's record of appointing minority judges was called "bleak" during a recent meeting with the Florida Legislative Black Caucus. A Times/Herald report showed the hiring of minorities in the governor's office has lagged under Scott.

Since Scott issued his first four orders, he has written another 14 that either fined, suspended or removed a public official.

The Tea Party Network, a group that claims to represent about 70 tea parties around the state, has picked Dockery's ethics bill (SB 552) as one of about a half-dozen issues it will push when the annual lawmaking session formally opens in January.

"One of our founding principles is to hold elected officials accountable," said Henry Kelley, chairman of the Fort Walton Beach Tea Party and the network's legislative coordinator.

Kelley said members of the network have attended each of the previous four weeks of legislative hearings, which are held in advance of the session.

Dockery's proposal aims to prohibit lawmakers from voting on any bill that would provide a "special private gain or loss" to the member or a relative. Lawmakers would also be barred from participating in legislation that helps or hurts a corporate principal, employer, business associate or board on which the member sits.

"Citizens need better disclosure from our elected officials," Kelley said.

To pass, Dockery's bill must first survive five Senate committee hearings.

Generally, bills with the most committee referrals have the lowest chance of passing, and in advance of the 2012 session, no bill has received as many referrals as Dockery's ethics proposal. She called it the "kiss of death."

"It's a little disconcerting to me that a bill recommended by the grand jury after Florida is ranked the No. 1 state for public corruption still seems to have very little chance of passing," Dockery said.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos, who controls how many committees a bill must pass, has said that his preference is at least three hearings for every piece of legislation. His office declined to immediately comment on the referrals for Dockery's bill.

Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, who represents part of Palm Beach County, where at least six county and city election officials have been arrested since 2008, said he would be open to changes on conflict-of-interest laws.

Negron helped defeat a bill from Fasano in March that would have increased penalties for public corruption, saying current criminal laws are adequate.

"I support any efforts to clarify when a legislator should declare a potential conflict of interest," Negron said. "I'm open to looking at ways to clarify that."

Michael C. Bender can be reached at mbender@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelCBender.

Tea party picks up ethics issue as Gov. Scott retreats 11/10/11 [Last modified: Thursday, November 10, 2011 9:55pm]

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