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Milligan for comptroller

The choice for state comptroller this year is between Democratic incumbent Gerald Lewis, who in 20 years on the job has developed a propensity to behave like a political hack, and Republican challenger Bob Milligan, who is new to Florida and lacks experience in the arcane duties of the comptroller's office. The inexperienced newcomer, Bob Milligan, is the better choice for the job.

Lewis has his priorities and standards screwed in backward. He is the only state banking regulator in the country who is elected rather than appointed, but he insists there's nothing wrong with the system. If you're a bank, that's probably true; if you're a consumer, it should make you squirm. Lewis also proclaims to see no conflict of interest in taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the very banking institutions he regulates _ including some that have been in trouble with his office _ and then leaning on them not to contribute to his opponents.

One of the best ways to measure Lewis is against his own standards. Twenty years ago, when he beat incumbent Bud Dickinson for the office, Lewis implied he would seek no more than two terms in office and would never take campaign funds from bankers. And he accused Dickinson of ducking debate. Now Lewis is seeking his sixth term, his campaign is run almost exclusively on banking money, and he has been a no-show for debates with both his primary opponent and Milligan.

Milligan, a retired three-star Marine general who was commander of Fleet Marine Forces, Pacific, has no trouble at all seeing the problems to which Lewis is blind. One of the cornerstones of Milligan's campaign is separating bank regulation from the comptroller's duties and turning the job over to a non-political appointed panel whose members are not dependent on banking largesse for their jobs. Milligan is a quick study who should learn the comptroller's job with ease. He has a proven ability to motivate and lead. And his take-charge personality should shake the dust out of the comptroller's office in short order.

Milligan supported an eleventh-hour attempt to impeach Lewis on charges that Lewis spent lavishly at bankers' expense and failed to report gifts and trips as required by state law. Lewis has denied some incidents and claims not to recall others. The matter may be moot, anyway. The legislator who was to file the impeachment papers was defeated in a run-off race, so unless someone else wants to take charge of the effort, it's dead.

A word of caution to Milligan: The impeachment allegations leaned heavily on testimony from John Christo Jr., and his son, John Christo III, former executives of the Bay Bank in Panama City, who were removed from office after examination by state and federal banking regulators in 1991. Their motives could be called into question.

Milligan is smart enough to know the state comptroller should keep a safe distance from people like the Christos, and he's tough enough to do it, which is more than we can say for the incumbent. We recommend Bob Milligan for comptroller.