Major ethics bill unveiled in Tallahassee

Article Courtesy of The Miami Herald

By Mary Ellen Klas

Published January 20, 2013


TALLAHASSEE -- Senate leaders filed a sweeping ethics reform package late Friday in an attempt to close dozens of loopholes in state laws.

From addressing voting conflicts and shutting down slush funds to halting the revolving door between legislative leaders and lobbying, the bill would address a lengthy list of ethics issues facing elected officials throughout Florida.

“This proposal will be the most significant ethics reform in 36 years — since the Sunshine Amendment,’’ predicted Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, chairman of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, which filed the draft legislation. 

The committee first discussed most of the provisions of the proposed committee bills, SPB 7006 and SPB 7008, earlier this week in a workshop. It has scheduled the first hearing for next Tuesday. The bill is expected to reach the Senate floor for a possible vote the first week of session in early March.

Many provisions take aim at ethical questions that have arisen in recent months, including the decision by former House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, to open a lobbying firm a block from the Capitol.

“It’s a revolving door,’’ Latvala said. "When one day you’re supervising agency budgets as speaker or president and the next day you’re a lobbyist, I don’t think that’s good public policy."

The proposal also attempts to end the practice of elected officials and candidates for public office creating Committees of Continuing Existence and then using them as slush funds for personal meals, travel and gifts. The practice came under scrutiny during the Miami Dade State attorney’s investigation of former Congressman David Rivera, who was not charged. Authorities concluded the practice was not illegal.

“It would greatly aid prosecutors in these types of inquiries and provide clearer guidance to candidates if the law was revised," the attorneys wrote in wrapping up the 18-month probe. "We have been confronted with the fact that an elected official over a period of many years may essentially live off a combination of (political) contributions… while avoiding penal sanction."
CCE’s could not be used to pay for meals and entertainment for other legislators, Latvala said. "We’re still allowing for legitimate expenses, including travel to raise money and have a fundraiser or deliver a check. But you can’t have night after night of parties in Tallahassee paid for by your CCE."

The committee bill also adopts several suggestions from the state Commission on Ethics, which has been forced to write off hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid fines levied against officials who do not file disclosure forms. The Senate bill tightens the requirement and allows for wages to be garnished of those who fail to pay fines.

Deemed a top priority of Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, the bill is likely to be put on a fast track this legislative session, Latvala said.

Many provisions, such as the requirement that legislators abstain from voting on legislation that benefits them, have been the subject of legislation offered by former Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, but was never given a hearing. 

“It’s kind of incredible that that’s not already law,” Latvala said. “But when the president makes something a priority, it happens.”

Among the provisions in the proposed Senate bill:

  • Cracks down on legislators who cash in on their positions of power by taking jobs in school districts, community colleges, universities and water districts.

  • Expands the two-year ban on legislators, members of the executive branch and their staff from lobbying the legislature to extend to the executive branch; the ban also includes strategy and public relations work.

  • Requires legislators to abstain from voting on issues that benefit them or family members.

  • Bans the use of political committees and Committees of Continuous Existence from being used as persona slush funds to pay for dinners, travel and gifts and limits those expenditures to campaign-related activities.

  • Allows for the garnishment of wages for any elected officials who fail to pay their fines

  • Gives people who fail to file their financial disclosure paperwork on time 60 days to complete it or pay a fine.

  • Requires mandatory four-hour ethics training for public officials.