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Changing times

Published Oct. 13, 2005

Tallahassee has plenty of politicians and some of the world's most skillful defense attorneys. Those facts are not unrelated. A long succession of state government scandals in the 1970s gave the lawyers experience to last a lifetime. Briefly: Two elected Cabinet members, the education commissioner and the treasurer/insurance commissioner, were indicted, forced from office and convicted. A third, the comptroller/banking commissioner, was defeated for re-election after pleading the Fifth Amendment during a federal grand jury investigation that led eventually to his misdemeanor conviction on a tax charge. A lieutenant governor was nearly impeached, though never criminally charged, with using a public employee to work his private farm. A former state senator was charged with taking bribes disguised as referral fees; he beat the rap on a technicality. Two Supreme Court justices resigned rather than face impeachment on ethics charges; a third talked his way out.

Journalists who covered the Capitol in those days could proudly claim that no state, not even Illinois or New Jersey, had more bad politicians or good lawyers.

But nothing in that experience prepared the Tallahassee defense bar for the culture shock it is now encountering: A locally elected state attorney who prosecutes politicians! The late Harry Morrison, who held sway as state attorney of the 2nd Judicial Circuit during most of the scandalous '70s, didn't exactly have that kind of fire in his belly. As a matter of fact, he once issued a written memorandum instructing his assistants not to charge any politicians, even local ones, for any kind of crime, not even a bad check, unless they asked him first.

"Sometimes, such cases are frivolous," he explained.

Poor old Harry, bless his soul, did at least have the sense to step aside _ or let himself be gently pushed _ on the several occasions when Gov. Reubin Askew decided he had to call in another state attorney to clean up a mess in Morrison's back yard. For a while, Jacksonville's state attorney, Ed Austin, was spending more time in Tallahassee than the Legislature.

When Morrison brought no charges against Lt. Gov. Tom Adams, who had just been censured by the House over the farm caper, the co-chairman of the legislative investigating committee said of the local prosecutor: "Either he's blind or couldn't see or couldn't comprehend what he read."

The case against the education commissioner, Floyd T. Christian, was two years late in the making partly because Morrison's predecessor had been misled by Christian and because Morrison, who stepped up from chief assistant in the 1972 election, failed to act on information Askew had sent him.

"I didn't know what it was, and I couldn't understand it," he said later.

Morrison also mislaid or failed to read a file that another state attorney had sent him pointing to a reported attempt to bribe the treasurer, Thomas D. O'Malley, who was later convicted on unrelated charges. The Florida Petroleum Marketers Association supposedly had collected nearly $41,000 on the understanding it would be used to "lobby" O'Malley, who was also the state fire marshal, against a proposed regulation to legitimize self-service gasoline stations. Morrison's curiosity might have been piqued had he routinely scanned the official records in his own courthouse, which revealed a $50,000 mortgage on O'Malley's house at about the same time the heat was being put on the petroleum marketers.

So Austin got that case too. He could never trace the marketers' money to O'Malley, but the grand jury did charge that O'Malley's general counsel had taken the intended bribe and kept it under his bed for some eight months _ in cash _ before giving it back. Or so the lawyer had said.

But now the 2nd Circuit has a state attorney, Willie Meggs, who is actually bringing CRIMINAL CHARGES against POLITICIANS! It's no wonder that the Tallahassee bar is in shock.

They are not big cases, since the accusation is only one of failing to report free trips and other gifts given to legislators by lobbyists under circumstances that would appear to be legal in every other respect. But the numbers and identities are impressive: Meggs has already charged 17 present and former legislators, including the present House speaker and the Senate president-designate, who is one of Meggs' own constituents, and he may charge 13 more.

"What is Meggs running for?" asked Dexter Douglass, who represents one of the legislators already charged.

There is a legal argument over whether the law, strictly interpreted, was ever meant by the Legislature to include trips _ as to Mexico, Paris and other pleasure spots _ as gifts that needed to be reported. Douglass points to the unsuccessful efforts of Edgar M. Dunn Jr., a former state senator, to amend the law to make sure that it would apply to trips. But Dunn said the issue is "sort of a lawyer's dichotomy" and that "a strong argument can be made on either side."

Legislators who fight the charge may be able to persuade a judge. Persuading the public may be harder. Some say, meanwhile, that they didn't disclose the free trips because they didn't know what they were worth.

What do you suppose they told the IRS?

Martin Dyckman is associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times.