Florida's laws against public corruption are far too lax, hampering the investigation and prosecution of elected and appointed officials who commit fraud or exploit their public position for private gain. That is the conclusion of a valuable interim report by a statewide grand jury on public corruption that found that Florida's "corruption tax" is costing taxpayers money and deteriorating public trust in government. Consider this a good-government challenge for incoming Gov. Rick Scott, Senate President Mike Haridopolos and House Speaker Dean Cannon, who vow to be vigilant stewards of state resources. An aggressive push for the grand jury's legislative reforms would telegraph a sincere desire to address the waste, fraud and abuse in state government.
The grand jury, impaneled 11 months ago at the request of Gov. Charlie Crist, found rampant corruption and self-dealing in various pockets of government. Its report referred multiple times to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission as an example of an agency well known as rife with "massive fraud and abuse." But those charged with investigating and rooting out the rot are hampered, operating without the necessary legal tools for the job.
For instance, a key recommendation is to expand the legal term "public servant" to include anyone who contracts with the government to perform a government function. Private employees performing what is essentially government work are now exempted from some state laws against kickbacks, bribery and bid tampering. In one example, probationers avoided doing required community service work by paying bribes to have their hours falsified. Because the bribe recipient was employed by a private nonprofit and not a government agency, charges could not be brought.
With Scott's promise to privatize more public services, particularly the state's prison system, this change is essential. Imagine if private prison guards were not subject to the same antibribery laws that state prison guards face.
Another important change would be to give the state's inspectors general true independence. Inspectors general are charged with going after those who waste or steal taxpayer money. They are often the best line of defense against public corruption. But inspectors general report to their agency head, who has the power to terminate them. The grand jury recommends that the state establish an Office of State Inspector General, the head of which would be responsible for hiring, firing and supervising the agency inspectors general. Just by making this one change, some real muscle would be injected into these state watchdogs.
The grand jury also suggests that state whistle-blowers be given some reward for coming forward if their tips lead to the firing or conviction of someone defrauding government. If employees within the Fish and Wildlife Commission had an incentive to disclose wrongdoing, it might not have taken five years for auditors to expose the routine bid rigging, stealing and other frauds occurring at the agency.
On the state's problems with corruption in campaign financing, the report suggests banning the so-called three-pack political advertisements that allow political parties, rather than the candidates who are subject to limits on individual donations, to pay for ads.
State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, says he intends to introduce legislation to enact a number of the grand jury's recommendations. State Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, already has filed legislation that would require state lawmakers to abstain from votes where they have a conflict, another grand jury suggestion. Now the new governor and the legislative leaders need to step up and embrace the grand jury's other key recommendations.