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A Times Editorial

Ethics watchdog needs teeth

The Florida Ethics Commission is like a police agency with few weapons, little investigatory scope and no authority to lock up an individual. On the average day, its impact on ethics among state and local officials is pretty much happenstance. Newcomers may worry about running afoul of the commission; seasoned veterans quickly learn the limits the law places on its reach. It's time to give the commission some teeth.

The appointed bipartisan commission, understandably frustrated, has offered a comprehensive legislative proposal that would make it easier to initiate investigations and prove officials had misused their office. "We're a watchdog charged with protecting the public's faith and we're being handicapped," says chair Cheryl Forchilli of Tampa.

Most of the recommendations are long overdue, though some need further study. But the commission's efforts are a refreshing antidote to the status quo. Just this month, federal agents visited Tallahassee to explore the connections of an indicted political fundraiser; a former House speaker remains under scrutiny for steering public funds to build an airplane hangar sought by a campaign contributor; and a Broward County commissioner pleaded guilty to bribery.

One of the best ideas would allow the commission to initiate investigations on its own or at the request of the governor or a Cabinet member. Now it has to wait for a citizen complaint. The panel would only initiate an investigation when a supermajority — six of nine members — agreed. Just like current investigations, such inquiries would remain confidential unless charges were pursued.

More problematic is the push to lower the standard of proof required. Until 1997, the commission needed only "a preponderance of evidence" to prove a violation. Then the 1st District Court of Appeal ruled it should be "clear and convincing" evidence — a higher standard written in statute for judges. But the commission contends most of the cases it investigates involve "misuse of public position" and meeting the higher standard requires showing corrupt intent. That test is too high because it requires proving the official's mental state, not just that he misused his office, said Forchilli.

The commission is also seeking to ease the impact of a 2007 court ruling that made it easier for officials to seek compensation for legal costs when a complaint contains false information. The commission said that has had a chilling effect, because would-be complainants are worried they're financially liable if they don't have all the facts straight.

There is a danger in removing barriers to filing complaints, as they are ripe for abuse in the midst of political campaigns. But there should be room for compromise here so well-intentioned citizens are not deterred.

The commission also has good ideas about improving conflict of interest statutes, financial disclosure reporting and a handful of other issues. The proposal isn't perfect, but it's an excellent place to start. Senate President Jeff Atwater and House Speaker Larry Cretul now have a duty to make sure the Legislature gives it a good hard look.

Ethics watchdog needs teeth 12/27/09 [Last modified: Sunday, December 27, 2009 3:30am]
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