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Why are Florida lawmakers trying to get rid of this one ethics rule?

Legislators keep trying to slip language into bills that would loosen restrictions on lawyers who serve on city and county commissions.
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Published Mar. 13, 2018
Updated Mar. 13, 2018

On Friday afternoon, in the frantic final hours of the legislative session, Florida's Ethics Commission issued an extraordinary press release expressing "deep concern" and warning senators not to pass a bill that would have gutted part of the state's ethics rules.

The bill didn't pass, but commissioners are worried after lawmakers have tried three times in the last two years to get rid of an obscure ethics rule dealing with lawyers serving on city and county commissions.

Currently, ethics rules say a lawyer with the Gunster law firm representing a trash company, for example, can't go before a local board in which another Gunster lawyer is a member.

The reasons are obvious and irreconcilable, ethicists say. Even if the board member discloses the conflict of interests, the board member could still easily influence the outcome of a bid in other ways, by giving his law partner advice on how to influence the board, or by influencing county staff about the bid. Even the board member's presence could influence his or her fellow board members.

"No matter which way you turn it, it's just an inherent conflict," Ethics Commission Executive Director Virlindia Doss said Monday.

Nevertheless, lawyers in the Legislature are making a bipartisan effort to do away with the rule.

The example that prompted the ethics commission's warning came from Rep. Daniel Perez, a Republican lawyer from Miami who successfully amended a bill in the last week of session. His amendment allowed lawyers to present clients before boards in which their law partners sit, as long as the board member disclosed the conflict and didn't vote on it.

But Perez wasn't the only one. An hour before the ethics commission sent its press release, Sen. Perry Thurston, a lawyer and Democrat from Lauderhill, attached a word-for-word copy to another bill. He didn't respond to requests for comment.

Neither made it into law. Perez on Friday appeared confused as to why the ethics commission would be opposed to his amendment.

"I respect them, and I understand that they're doing what they believe is in their best interests," he said. "I'm not sure that they understand the amendment."

But they did understand the amendment, because they'd seen it before. In 2015, then-Sen. Don Gaetz tried to do it. And in the waning days of the 2017 session, Sen. Rob Bradley, a lawyer and Republican from Fleming Island, tried to slip a similar amendment into another bill.

His amendment prompted the Ethics Commission to warn lawmakers in August, in advance of the 2018 session, against changing the rule.

"The Commission is wrong on this issue," Bradley said in a text message on Monday. "Hopefully, the Legislature addresses this matter next session."

Stripping away the rule wouldn't just benefit local officials. More than one in five lawmakers is a lawyer, including House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who works for Broad & Cassell, and Senate President Joe Negron, who resigned from the Gunster law firm last year. Any or all could run for local office when they're term-limited out of the Legislature.

In its press release, ethics commissioners said they were adamantly against any changes to the rule.

“The Commission feels so strongly about the importance of this public protection that in its 2018 legislative recommendations it specifically requested that this precedent not be relaxed in any way,” the press release states.

Doss, the Ethics Commission executive director, said she could not remember commissioners ever issuing a press release advocating lawmakers vote one way or another on a bill.

"I think it really concerned them that in the last two years, this has come up as a floor amendment on the last few days of session," she said. "It does keep coming up again and again."