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Ethics case becomes constitutional showdown

Ethics charges against a Jacksonville legislator have sparked a constitutional confrontation between the State Ethics Commission and legislators.

Last month, ethics commissioners found state Rep. Mike Langton guilty of abusing his legislative position by making repeated contacts with a state agency in an effort to help his private consulting business.

The commission, powerless to impose penalties in cases involving legislators, referred the charges to the Legislature for action.

Langton has asked _ and a select House committee has agreed _ to rehear the witnesses and evidence that led to the Ethics Commission's decision.

In an appearance before the select committee Monday, Ethics Commission Chairman Dean Bunch said legislators will be acting illegally if they try to redecide the issue of whether Langton acted unethically.

The commission found that Langton, D-Jacksonville, repeatedly tried to get the State Department of Community Affairs to take action that would have helped clients of his business. The business writes and administers grants for cities and counties that get development money from the state.

The Ethics Commission voted late Monday to ask the Florida Supreme Court to step in and force legislators to comply with the state Constitution if legislators try to start over with a new hearing.

At issue is the wording of a 1976 constitutional amendment adopted by voters after then-Gov. Reubin Askew led a citizens petition drive to force adoption of a government ethics law.

Besides establishing requirements for financial disclosure by public officials, the amendment forbade legislators from representing clients before state agencies until they have been out of office for two years.

Legislators have long restricted the authority of the Ethics Commission, and in a new ethics law passed last year, they reserved to themselves authority over any action taken in investigations involving legislators. The commission can recommend a penalty or removal from office for other public officials it investigates.

Committee Chairman Norm Ostrau, D-Plantation, has asked attorneys for all sides to appear at another meeting Thursday to consider the question.

Ostrau and other committee members had agreed to rehear the evidence against Langton but said Monday they may have to reconsider the decision.

Mark Herron, the Tallahassee lawyer who represents Langton, says the House is the sole judge of its members and should be allowed determine whether Langton violated House rules.

House rules appear to conflict with the state Constitution, which says the Ethics Commission is the sole judge of whether ethics laws have been violated.

The Constitution delegates authority to the Ethics Commission to investigate and make public reports on any breach of trust by a public official.

The issue is likely to arise again in the months to come as the Ethics Commission completes a series of investigations of legislators who accepted trips and other gifts from lobbyists but failed to disclose them.

Complaints to the Ethics Commission were made last year after Tallahassee State Attorney Willie Meggs began subpoenaing the records of lobbyists who provided the trips and gifts.

Meggs filed criminal charges against 24 legislators for trips made before July 1, 1989, when legislators abolished the criminal penalties and made the failure to report such gifts a breach of ethics.

All of the legislators charged with crimes, including House Speaker T.K. Wetherell, have pleaded no contest and paid fines. One, Senate Appropriations Chairman Winston "Bud" Gardner, D-Titusville, has challenged the constitutionality of the criminal law in an appeal that is pending.