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Ex-senator faces ethics charges

Former State Sen. Bob Johnson of Sarasota has been formally charged by the state Ethics Commission with falsifying his state travel forms and illegally representing a client before a state agency.

State investigators determined that over a period of several years, Johnson repeatedly inflated his mileage when he filed legislative travel vouchers. Johnson blamed the problem on secretaries who incorrectly listed the distances. He repaid the state $2,331 after a Sarasota newspaper reported on the situation during the 1992 election.

Johnson was defeated by Sen. Jim Boczar, D-Sarasota, in a campaign that included publicity and discussion of the ethics charges.

The former senator also is accused of violating a state law that prohibits legislators from representing private clients before state agencies.

As an attorney, Johnson represented weekly newspaper publisher Philip J. Carlton of Sarasota in a battle with state environmental agencies over the construction of a dock.

Johnson told investigators that he represented Carlton on other issues and did not charge a fee for representing him in the fight to rebuild his dock.

Members of the Ethics Commission overruled recommendations from Assistant Attorney General Verlindia Doss after discussing the allegations. Doss reasoned that there was no proof that Johnson deliberately falsified travel records and no indication that he received payment from Carlton for the dock work.

Ethics Commission members noted that the travel vouchers had been filed over a long period of time and could not be regarded as isolated mistakes.

Commission Chairman Steve Zack, a former president of the Florida Bar, questioned how the state could allow a legislator to collect legal fees from a client on some cases and provide free services on cases before a state agency without creating a serious loophole in the law that restricts the practice.

Commission investigators determined that Johnson made repeated contacts with state agencies during 1990 and 1991 to gain approval for Carlton's dock. A short time later, Carlton bought a $590,000 mortgage to help Johnson out of a financial jam.

Johnson and Carlton denied there was any connection between the loan and the legal help provided, but Johnson refused to allow the inspection of his billing records, citing an attorney-client relationship.

Johnson told investigators he helped Carlton with the dock fight because he felt Carlton had been unfairly treated by the state agencies, which initially denied permission for him to rebuild a 248-foot dock.

In an unrelated decision, the commission filed charges against former Collier County Commissioner Max Hasse Jr., claiming he solicited advertising for his weekly newspaper from corporations that had business before the County Commission.

Hasse was part owner of the Golden Gate Gazette, a newspaper that is distributed free in Collier County, at the same time he served on the County Commission.

The Ethics Commission determined that Hasse should have known that advertising orders were given to him to influence his decisions as a county official.

Johnson and Hasse will face formal hearings before the commission later this year. If found guilty they would face civil fines.