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Stuart tests Chiles' sincerity on ethics

George Stuart had plenty of reason to be especially scrupulous about his personal behavior when he came to Tallahassee a little over a year ago to serve as director of the state Department of Professional Regulation (DPR) in Gov. Lawton Chiles' new administration.

For one thing, Stuart was coming to work for a governor whose successful campaign was based in large part on his promise to bring a higher standard of ethical behavior to state government. For another, Stuart already was dealing with personal problems that had crippled his own 1990 campaign for statewide office and subsequently raised serious questions about Chiles' wisdom in selecting him to serve in such a crucial role. Any further embarrassment would harm not just himself but an entire administration.

In that context, it's astonishing almost beyond belief that Stuart would manage to come to Tallahassee and place himself in an ethically indefensible situation literally overnight. For the first few weeks of the Chiles administration, the Tampa Tribune reported this week, Stuart stayed for free in the home of Tallahassee lobbyist George Sheldon, whose firm later received a no-bid contract from DPR. Sheldon and his firm already did extensive business with groups regulated by DPR when Stuart decided to move in with him.

Stuart says he doesn't think that his cozy relationship with Sheldon, who is a long-time friend, has created even the appearance of ethical impropriety, but that's not surprising. Stuart was unapologetic about a much broader pattern of personal irresponsibility that had earlier wrecked his own electoral ambitions. Stuart was the Democratic nominee for state treasurer and insurance commissioner in 1990 when it was revealed that he had bounced at least 20 checks in the previous year and failed to make payment on other expensive items. When Stuart was asked about his financial problems, including the 1983 foreclosure on his Orlando home, he suggested that "all Floridians" occasionally bounce lots of checks and fail to pay their bills.

That cavalier attitude toward his own financial affairs surely was a factor in Stuart's defeat. Many Floridians were uncomfortable with the idea of putting a person with Stuart's problems in charge of a state agency with an annual budget of more than $75-million.

Chiles should have been similarly uncomfortable with the idea of placing Stuart in charge of an agency with DPR's responsibilities. Even if Stuart had managed to get his own finances in order in the meantime, he was the wrong person to create the atmosphere that Chiles promised to bring to DPR and other state agencies.

Stuart's selection was an early sign that Chiles, despite all his campaign rhetoric, was capable of placing his political debts ahead of his ethical responsibilities in staffing his administration. Now there is evidence that Stuart wasted no time in violating the trust that Chiles placed in him. In responding to the new evidence of Stuart's moral myopia, Chiles will have another chance to show how seriously he takes his own campaign promises.