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End roads corruption

Prosecutors and the DOT have ample reason to widen their influence-peddling probe of the state's road-building industry, going after those who have robbed taxpayers and hurt legitimate contractors.

Three of the biggest public corruption cases in Florida within the past year involved payments to state officials from large road contractors. Last week, one of Florida's largest road builders and a state inspector were found guilty of skimming money from state contracts in what may be a scheme pervasive throughout the state. With millions of tax dollars hanging in the balance, prosecutors and the state Department of Transportation have ample reason to open new inquiries into Florida's road-building industry.

In the case that produced last week's guilty verdicts, prosecutors said Michael Cone, president of Cone Constructors, withheld payments to subcontractors and then lied to the state, claiming the payments had been made. His cohort, Robert Riley, a state official whose job was to referee disputes between Cone and its subcontractors, often sided with Cone. In return, prosecutors said, Cone gave Riley cash, a Ford Bronco and a $140,000 home.

The brazenness of Cone and Riley exposes a lack of oversight within the Transportation Department. Cone's subcontractors have complained for years that they were short-changed or never paid. Riley, as the DOT supervisor in the field, was able to nurture a relationship with Cone that enabled him to trade on his public authority until, after 25 years with DOT, he resigned, complaining of "the strain and mental duress" caused by rumors that he was on the take.

The Cone case follows the convictions of two former Florida lawmakers who took thousands of dollars in payments from Anderson-Columbia Co., another major road contractor. The payments would have been legal, though unethical, if the lawmakers had declared them on their income tax returns. Bo Johnson rose to be Florida House speaker; Randy Mackey, another conservative Democrat, served on a key committee that funded road projects. They were among a handful of North Florida legislators who acted on the company's behalf.

Prosecutors in North Florida appear to have widened their influence-peddling probe, which, in wake of the Cone convictions, should include a full review of payments to (and from) all major contractors. It would be difficult to believe, given the sums of money involved and similarities in the recent cases, that the Cone scandal is a freak example of contractors and regulators scheming to milk the system. Few builders have the money, size and clout to compete for the contracts to build Florida's roads, which reduces DOT field supervisors to the job of overseeing a small, extended family.

The plea agreement that bars Cone from doing state business for four years does not go far enough to restore public confidence in the management of road contracts. DOT should review whether its internal controls are adequate to detect corruption before it spreads to such a massive scale. The recent convictions will send a message only if the chances are increased that thieves will be caught and if the penalties for robbing the taxpayers and legitimate contractors are made severer.

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