After limos, jets and steak dinners,

now they're talking ethics reform

Article Courtesy of The Orlando Sentinel

By Scott Maxwell

Published October 29, 2012


If you've lived in Florida for any length of time — like prior to noon yesterday — you probably know that our state is an ethical cesspool.

Special interests funnel money to legislators. Legislators write the laws the way the interests ask. You get hosed. And it's all perfectly legal.

To show you how lax ethics laws are in this state, consider the following:

If a company gives a legislator $100 cash, that could be a crime.

But if a lobbyist is willing to first funnel that money through a political committee, the very same company is free to give $100,000 or whatever it wants.

The legislator can then use that money to fly to Vegas and stay at a five-star hotel on the Strip.

Or charter a plane to Washington, drop $5,000 on a hotel and $1,800 more on limousines and chauffeurs.

Or maybe visit his favorite neighborhood steakhouses … 76 times.

He can even put tens of thousands of dollars into his personal bank account — as long as he claims he's reimbursing himself for legitimate expenses.

Not only would all of that be legal — it all actually happened.

Florida legislators — specifically party leaders — have been exposed doing all of those things with money from companies and interests that want legislative favors.

This is Florida's new normal.

Fortunately, there is finally talk of changing this. It's coming from a handful of legislators who seem capable of an emotion rarely demonstrated in Tallahassee: shame.

Incoming Senate President Don Gaetz is chief among them, telling reporters recently that ethics reform is among his top priorities.

He's a Republican cracking down on fellow Republicans … the ones giving his entire party a bad name.

(Democrats used to get into similar trouble decades ago when they ran the show. Nowadays, though, Democrats don't have enough clout to pass gas, much less legislation. So the special interests save most of their loot for the Republicans.)

Specifically, Gaetz wants to force legislators to file more-complete financial disclosures and make that information more easily accessible to citizens. That's sorely needed. Right now, we have lawmakers who refuse to disclose whose payroll they are on — even if they're casting votes that could help their benefactors. That's just sick.

Gaetz also wants to ban lawmakers from voting if they have a conflict of interest. Right now, that's not prohibited. Seriously.

He also wants to tighten the reins on those who try to parlay their part-time legislative jobs into better-paying public ones. (Like the lawmaker who beefs up funding for a community college and — voilà! — suddenly gets a cushy job at that same college.)

Amen. Amen. Amen.

Go, Don, go.

But the practice that has Gaetz most perturbed is legislators living high on the hog, thanks to corporate money funneled through committees that legislators set up under the auspices of campaigning or promoting generic ideals.

Gaetz said it has become painfully obvious that some legislators simply "live out of" their committee funds, saying: "I think that is wrong."

Gaetz made that statement just a few weeks after Central Florida's own state Rep. Chris Dorworth made statewide news for collecting more than $1 million in a political committee — and using the money for everything from bar tabs to a trip to Taiwan. Dorworth also claimed he needed to reimburse himself more than $30,000 for "out-of-pocket expenses," according to the Tampa Bay Times.

Dorworth said all of the spending was perfectly appropriate — related to the business of campaigning.

It's the same thing Dean Cannon said when he racked up more than $14,000 worth of charges on the Republican Party credit card at 76 visits to steakhouses, Houston's and Ruth's Chris, just a few miles from his Winter Park home during the course of about two years. (I hope Dean charged a few bottles of Lipitor to the party donors as well.)

And the same thing Cannon said about the GOP-donor-funded trip he took to Washington with some legislative pals. And the same thing Dorworth said about his Vegas getaway.

It's the same thing they always say.

Yes, companies that want us to do them legislative favors give our committees money.

Yes, we spend that money on lavish dinners, trips and other perks.

And, yes, we end up passing a lot of the bills those companies want.

But how dare you suggest that any of that is related?

Oh, and no, we won't provide detailed proof that the spending was appropriate — because we don't have to.

That's part of what Gaetz and incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford said they want to change with the campaign committees. They should do it with the party funds as well.

Now, to be honest with you, I'm not holding my breath.

Expecting Florida politicians to clean up their own act is like expecting a pig to stay out of the mud.

But the simple fact that Gaetz and Weatherford are talking about sweeping reform — the likes of which this state hasn't seen in nearly four decades — is encouraging.

And really, none of this is that complicated:

If you can't serve in public office without lining your own pockets or personally benefiting, you have no business being there.