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  1. Florida Politics

Some Florida lawmakers see wealth rise while in office

Published Jul. 29, 2012

TALLAHASSEE — Public office has been good to the bottom line of many state lawmakers, for some much more than others, two new analyses of publicly available financial disclosure forms show.

Florida state senators have grown their wealth by an average of $800,000 since taking office, according to a study to be released Monday by the Tallahassee group Integrity Florida.

But the opposite is true for members of the Florida House, who generally have not been in office as long and have seen their investments decline thanks to the real estate bust. Their net worths — calculated as assets minus debt — have dropped about $100,000 on average.

Integrity Florida and the Times/Herald separately analyzed lawmakers' annual financial disclosure forms, which include their sources of income, assets and liabilities.

The reports, which were designed to help the public identify conflicts of interest, did not suggest blatant violations or unfair advantages to lawmakers because of their elected office. But the fact that many politicians out-perform average Floridians has in the past raised questions about the intersect between the public and private lives of lawmakers.

"Individuals that are wealthy or growing their wealth should be commended for doing so. It would be a mistake to review financial disclosure reports and criticize lawmakers simply for the wealth they have," said Dan Krassner, executive director of Integrity Florida, a group that formed in 2012 to expose public corruption. "At the same time, citizens should review lawmakers' private financial interests and compare what is reported to their public service."

Florida legislators earn roughly $30,000 per year for their part-time work, and most have other jobs. That means they have the opportunity to grow their wealth while in office, which can be awkward.

For example, former Gov. Charlie Crist blasted Marco Rubio in a 2010 U.S. Senate television ad for the money Rubio made while serving in the state House. Rubio's income grew in the 10 years he served in the House from $73,380 to $414,000.

Among the analyses' other findings:

Disclosures lack information to identify conflicts

Integrity Florida identified at least 10 legislators who work for law firms that lobby the state, but it's unclear what work the lawmakers do for those firms and where their private work might cross into the public world. Conflicts are especially significant because lawmakers help disburse thousands of lucrative contracts to private businesses and organizations each year.

"Most people don't look at (the disclosure forms). I've never had anyone say to me, 'I don't like the fact that you're making money from X or Y,' " said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, a retired attorney who accumulated much of his $6.8 million from the sale of a lobbying firm he helped launch while he was on break from public office.

Two Tampa Bay lawmakers work for law firms that lobby — Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, and Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-New Port Richey.

Lawmakers rarely say they have a conflict

Despite their private careers, lawmakers somehow avoid issues where they could personally gain, they say.

Members are required to file financial disclosure forms when they vote on an issue from which they could benefit financially. But out of the 160-member Legislature, only 12 lawmakers filed forms during the 2012 legislative session. Of the lawmakers employed by law firms, only Joyner filed a form disclosing a conflict.

Members were wealthy when they took office

Many lawmakers have family money or were wealthy before they were elected to office, and they continue to make savvy investments.

Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, the grandson of citrus magnate Ben Hill Griffin Jr,, grew his net worth from $1.2 million to $9 million since he was first elected in 1998. Incoming Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, has seen his net worth grow from $24 million to $25.5 million since taking office in 2006.

Recession affected most, but not all Members

Plummeting real estate prices singed Rep. Joe Gibbons, D-Hallandale Beach, who lost big when the housing market crashed — his net worth is down from $304,000 to $150,0000.

Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, saw her net worth spike from $680,000 to more than $1 million before the housing bubble burst cut the value in half. "That was a reflection of the real estate market everyone was dealing with," said Bogdanoff, who is an attorney.

Sen. Steve Oelrich, R-Gainesville, a former sheriff who was elected to state office in 2006 and is now running for Congress, had $1.7 million in 2008. But he lost $725,000 during the recession, largely due to the decline in real estate values.

Thrasher and his wife invested conservatively for years, and rely on a financial adviser they trust. Since Thrasher took office in 1992, his net worth ballooned from $125,000 to $6.8 million, which stayed flat during the recession.

Some long-term lawmakers such as Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, slowly saved their way to wealth. Fasano, elected to office in 1994, has grown his net worth from $125,000 to $1.2 million since that time.

"I paid off my home, and therefore there's no mortgage. Some people suggest that I'm very cautious about my money. Some people might use a word other than cautious, but we'll leave it at cautious," he joked.

Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at bdavis@tampabay.com or 850-323-0353.

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