Thursday, February 22, 2018
Opinion

In Florida's ethical swamp, swatting a gnat

Let's review. Florida is governed by an assemblage of politicians who can be bought off for the price of a Slurpee. Ethics? In Florida? This is a bit like trying to find a liquor store in Saudi Arabia.

But that didn't stop Gov. Rick Scott from tapping the Florida Commission on Ethics, which has all the juice of a World Wrestling referee, to make sure he could record a greeting for visitors at Tampa International Airport.

Say, that's just what we need — a welcome from a public figure who is not even popular with his own constituents. Oh governor? We're trying to lure visitors here, not convince them to book the next flight back to Duluth.

Perhaps the governor believed this was going to be the only way he would be allowed to speak to the Republican National Convention delegates.

At issue was whether Scott's howdy violated the ban on gifts or expenditures from lobbyists. Thus, legions of ethics commission factotums burned away the midnight oil to determine whether the governor, whose popularity ratings drift barely above Florida's skunk ape, could record the TIA greeting.

You will not be surprised to learn the ethics commission determined Scott was free to bother people on the TIA's trams because a recording of the governor's voice has absolutely no monetary value whatsoever. Zilch.

But suppose a Scott greeting had constituted some sort of ethical boo-boo? So what? It's not like he'd have to pay a fine.

At the moment, the commission is owed close to $1 million in fines from some 700 Florida elected and appointed public servants. And not a dime of it has been collected because of the commission's lack of enforcement authority. An ethically challenged scofflaw can simply drag out the process as the fines expire after four years.

Now you might well be thinking: This is pretty outrageous. Why doesn't the Florida Legislature change the law to put more ooomph into an ethics commission finding of wrongdoing? Aren't you precious?

What incentive would there be for the Legislature to create a Commission on Ethics with real power to impose fines, collect them and otherwise inflict genuine discipline upon errant officeholders, when the target of so many ethics complaints involves — ta-dah! — the Florida Legislature?

This would be like a drug cartel begging the U.S. Border Patrol to please arrest them.

Florida is awash in wink-winking ethical shenanigans, including state Sen. JD Alexander's wheeling and dealing to bring an unaccredited polytechnic university to Lakeland that virtually nobody wanted and academic experts inveighed against.

Consider Florida's now infamous "stand your ground'' law that everyone from law enforcement to prosecutors opposed on the theory it was unnecessary and would lead to chaos in the courts — which it has. But Tallahassee, more fearful of the National Rifle Association's ire than concerned about public safety, passed it anyway.

But suddenly Scott is concerned whether a inane public service announcement violates a toothless ethics law?

While the governor was pretending to be the Simon Pure of Tallahassee by giving literal lip-service to the Florida Commission on Ethics, Scott still found plenty of time earlier this month to play spin-the-checkbook with Las Vegas mogul Sheldon Adelson, who gave $250,000 to his Let's Get to Work (Greasing the Skids) political action committee.

The governor had no qualms accepting $250,000 from a gambling kingpin who wants to open casinos in Florida. No reticence either in taking another $250,000 from Florida Power & Light, which is technically regulated by the state. And that $100,000 from a group that wants changes to Florida's no-fault care insurance law? No problem. No conflict of interest here.

Did the governor think to consult the ethics commission staff and members on any of these compromised political contributions? Why bother them? They are so busy with other stuff.

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