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  1. Florida Politics

Florida ethics commission balks at forcing spouses of elected officials to reveal finances

Published Sep. 12, 2015

TALLAHASSEE — Citing the scandal that engulfed Tampa politician Jim Norman, a divided state ethics commission on Friday debated and discarded a proposal to force spouses of elected officials to reveal their personal finances as a check against corruption.

The idea would be explosive in the Legislature, which carefully scrutinizes any tweaks to the ethics laws that it must live by. But it shows the staying power of a controversy that sidetracked a promising political career.

Norman, 61, is a former state senator and Hillsborough commissioner who in 2012 faced ethics charges that he failed to disclose a powerful businessman's gift of $435,000 to his wife that paid for a vacation home in Arkansas.

Norman said it was his wife's house and his lawyer called it "a simple form-filing mistake that happens all the time."

The Senate had the last word on any punishment but took no action when Norman did not seek re-election. He recently filed papers to seek a return next year to the County Commission where he served for 18 years.

As the nine appointed citizen ethics watchdogs discussed what anticorruption safeguards to pitch to lawmakers in the upcoming session, some suggested that political spouses should be forced to disclose their finances to prevent elected officials from concealing assets.

In Florida, such a requirement would, for example, require first lady Ann Scott to disclose her financial portfolio. It would also reveal the assets and liabilities of the wives and husbands of all legislators, sheriffs, county commissioners and school board members.

Broward County's ethics code bans county commissioners and their spouses, registered domestic partners and relatives from accepting gifts from lobbyists, and Louisiana's ethics laws require political spouses to list all business relationships.

Recalling the Norman case, Fort Lauderdale attorney Susan Maurer said, "The husband said, 'I didn't know about that.' … We see it time and time again as an escape mechanism for a public official."

A second board member, Pasco financial planner Michael Cox, also endorsed the idea.

Moments later, the commission's executive director, Virlindia Doss, nodding in Maurer's direction, cited "the Norman case" still pending before the Senate. The Senate and House are the final judge of the conduct of their members.

The spousal disclosure idea was advanced by Mark Herron, a lawyer who specializes in ethics cases.

"Be bold. Take a leadership role. But I recognize you may get beat up down the street," Herron said, referring to the state Capitol a few miles away.

Tom Freeman, a retired circuit judge and ethics commission member, denounced the idea. "It will immediately be ruled unconstitutional," he said.

Board member Michelle Anchors, a Fort Walton Beach lawyer, also opposed it. "In my case, it would be a deterrent to marriage," she said, as support for the idea evaporated.

But the commission will ask the Legislature to require every elected official in the state to disclose their assets and debts and sources and amounts of income greater than $1,000 on what's known as Form 6. The change would affect more than 22,000 local elected officials, who now must disclose only their sources of income.

Separately, the ethics panel voted to change to an electronic filing system for financial disclosure statements by 2019 as directed by the Legislature.

But potential pitfalls were red-flagged in a report by the commission staff, which warned of a "dramatic shift" that will be complicated and cost taxpayers $1.9 million to implement.

Under the plan, the estimated 2,500 officials who annually file the detailed Form 6 financial statements would no longer be able to submit a federal income tax return as a substitute for the form, as the law has allowed for four decades.

That's because of obstacles in uploading hundreds of tax documents and the fact that tax returns typically include lots of confidential information under state law, which is time-consuming to remove. The state's goal is instant online posting of disclosure documents by 2019.

Voters added the financial disclosure law, known as the "Sunshine Amendment," to the state Constitution in 1976 when the late Gov. Reubin Askew led a statewide petition drive after a series of political scandals.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com.

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