Gov. Charlie Crist's call last week for a statewide grand jury investigation into public corruption at state and local levels runs the risk of being a political stunt by a U.S. Senate candidate. A grand jury, with the help of the statewide prosecutor, could be useful in shining a spotlight on one of the growing malignancies in Florida's politics: shadowy third-party political groups.
Crist's anticorruption salvo came after a pair of political scandals in Broward County, including one involving an ophthalmologist who ran three such political groups and allegedly told a donor and the FBI that he could bribe state officials. Dr. Alan Mendelsohn is also facing charges of using some political contributions for his mistress, his children's education and to pay an unnamed elected official.
Called 527s for their section in the IRS tax code, the political slush funds have become a mainstay of Florida politics. Unlike donations to candidates or political parties, contributions to 527s are subject to few financial disclosures. The money can be spent on everything from negative campaigns to lifestyle perks for those who run them. The funds allow special interests to quietly pump huge sums into campaigns unnoticed, currying political favor with politicians.
Ideally, the governor should also push the Republican-led Legislature to consider several anticorruption proposals offered by its members, including more transparency in the state budgeting process, stricter campaign finance requirements for 527s, and tougher ethics laws and enforcement of elected officials.
And Crist also could have embraced the most radical reform of all: The much-needed citizen petition being circulated by Fair Districts Florida that would require the Legislature to consider fairness and community boundaries, not just partisan advantage, when drawing political districts every 10 years. The current process allows legislative leaders to draw safe districts for themselves and their allies, the public's interest be damned.
Crist's grand jury request alone won't eradicate corruption or the temptations created by mountains of cash laundered through obscure slush funds. But it could be a start. The state Supreme Court should grant his petition, and the statewide prosecutor should get to work unscrambling the hidden financial network that grows more corrosive with each election cycle. At the same time, the governor should call in legislative leaders and remind them that they do not have to wait for a grand jury to do what's right.