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Daniel Ruth

Picking the public's pocket, legally

Please excuse a simplistic question, or two.

Suppose someone said to you: "I want you to give me $85,000 for my business."

Oakie-dokie. And just who are you?

"Ah, sorry. Can't say, pardon the Mardi Gras mask. But if you knew me you'd think I was a real pip."

And just what will you use the money for?

"Uh, sorry, again, can't tell you that. But if only you knew, why you'd be beside yourself with excitement."

Now how long do you think it would take before you gave the mystery freeloader the bum's rush the likes of Linda Bollea applying for membership at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club?

Yet a few days ago, the Pinellas County Commission blithely forked over $85,000 to an unnamed company seeking financial assistance under the state's Star Chamber-inspired Qualified Target Industries program.

Even more surreal, the commission was legally obligated to give away nearly a $100,000 in public money sight unseen, with less due diligence than Charles Barkley at a craps table, simply because a county administrative bean counter said to do it.

Under the provisions of the QTI, corporations seeking to plunge their sticky fingers deep into the public exchequer can request complete secrecy as to their identities for up to two years based on their promise to create jobs in return for tax refunds. The College of Cardinals picking a new pope is more transparent.

In fact, if a public official were to publicly expose to the public the identity of a company seeking public funds, the public official could find themselves facing misdemeanor charges for governing in full public view.

And that only makes some perverse sense. If the public starts finding out public stuff, well, they might get all huffy at the idea of some suit getting a public handout. And before you know it, the corner Mom and Pop grocery store, or a car detailing business, or some other struggling clout-challenged concern might start deluding themselves that maybe they, too, can get in on the gravy train.

No good can come from this. You can only take this fairness stuff so far.

Back during his junta years, then-Gov. Jeb Bush defended the practice of treating the public as three-card monte marks when it came to doling out taxpayer funds for corporate welfare interests.

The governor argued it was important to maintain confidentiality (read: mind your own beeswax) when it came to economic development (read: cronyism) in order to protect sensitive corporate information (read: planes, perks and private clubs) that could adversely affect profitability, share prices and "employee morale" (read: if the serfs ever found out about these handouts, we're toast).

Oh, please, it's a bit hard to fathom that Burt down in the mailroom is going to have his morale crushed if it were to be revealed his employer had just received tens of thousands of dollars in tax breaks to further enhance the company balance sheet.

Of course, this is the same Jeb Bush, R-I Vant To Be Alone, who when it came to public accountability treated the governor's mansion as if he was a mushroom farmer.

Economic development is a peachy thing. But if you went to such venture capitalists as Warren Buffett or Mitt Romney or Barry Diller and asked them to give you tens of thousands of dollars without revealing your identity or how the money was going to be spent, the meeting would involve less time than it takes to read Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White's "Sure-Fire Lines To Pick Up Women."

So why should public officials elected to oversee the proper expenditure of taxpayer monies be prevented by law from doing their jobs by exercising fiduciary responsibility?

There is a price to be paid for any private enterprise seeking public assistance — the simple, elegant concept of public accountability. That's why it is called the Sunshine Law and not the Nuclear Winter Law.

We are now just barely emerging from a financial crisis that was fueled by a lack of regulatory oversight. It was a debacle in large part created by faceless, uncontrolled, unhinged hucksters who believed they were above being held accountable.

And now the citizens of Pinellas County (and elsewhere around the state) are being asked to accept on faith that it is perfectly proper to blindly pass out huge amounts of tax dollars without public input. Piffle.

It was Ronald Reagan who once uttered that great line: "Trust, but verify."

It was good advice then. It still is.

Picking the public's pocket, legally 05/28/09 [Last modified: Thursday, May 28, 2009 6:52pm]

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