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A fight the Legislature can't win

Published Oct. 10, 2005

Leaders of the Florida House, whose reputations already have been sullied enough by recent scandals and stupidities, still have time to back out of an embarrassing constitutional fight that they can't win. All that they have to do is acknowledge what most Floridians took for granted until now: The state Ethics Commission has sole authority to rule on possible ethics violations on the part of legislators and other public officials.

A select House committee was attempting to do a favor for a colleague in trouble when it made a decision earlier this month that turned a 1976 constitutional amendment and the House's own ethics laws on their ears. The committee agreed to rehear an Ethics Commission ruling that Rep. Mike Langton was guilty of abusing his public position. By any fair reading of state law, the House has the authority only to determine the nature of Langton's punishment, not to give Langton a second chance to escape punishment altogether.

The Ethics Commission historically has been loath to assert its constitutional authority, so legislators may have thought that they could pull a successful power play. Fortunately, though, Ethics Commission Chairman Dean Bunch confronted the select House committee Monday and warned that it will be violating the law if it reopens the Langton case.

That leaves the House with the choice of backing down or embarrassing itself further. Langton, who abused his position by browbeating officials of a state agency in an effort to win business for his private consulting firm, isn't worth the fight. But some legislators may want to establish a precedent that would protect them from the commission's investigation of Tallahassee officials who violated the law by failing to disclose gifts that lobbyists provided them.

It's past time for the Legislature to show more interest in living up to state ethics laws than in finding ways to evade them. One of the laws that the select House committee is now misinterpreting was passed last year in an effort to end the embarrassment caused by the Legislature's mishandling of sexual harassment charges brought against Rep. Fred Lippman, D-Hollywood. Many legislators still haven't recovered from the even broader embarrassment caused by revelations of their inappropriate relationships with Tallahassee lobbyists.

Even if state law weren't clear on the matter, the Legislature has failed to enforce its own ethical standards when it had the opportunity. Now that the state Ethics Commission seems prepared to do the job for which it was created, legislators should acknowledge the obvious and let Floridians know that they are finally prepared to abide by the law.