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Fighting corruption in Florida

January 12, 2016

Florida no longer ranks as the most corrupt state in the country, but that is hardly cause to celebrate.

Tallahassee-based Integrity Florida released a report this week finding Florida had 622 federal convictions for public corruption from 2003 to 2013, more than any state but Texas and California.

Florida had ranked at the top of the list during the 10-year period from 2000 to 2010. But a downward trend doesn’t mean the state solved its corruption problem, as Integrity Florida research director Ben Wilcox said.

“That’s a lot of corruption, I don’t care how big Florida is,” Wilcox told the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee bureau. “I don’t think the fact that the numbers have declined means that we need to take our foot off the gas pedal. We need to go after this problem full-speed.”

Reforms passed in 2013 and 2014 were the first significant update of the state’s ethics laws since the 1970s. But much more could be done to ensure government accountability and prevent influence peddling and other corruption that falls short of outright bribery.

The Legislature must first stop weakening public records laws, which makes corruption harder for the media and public to catch. Lawmakers should also pass legislation endorsed by Integrity Florida as a way to ensure a more open, ethical and accountable government.

Senate Bill 582 would allow government contractors and vendors to be prosecuted under bribery laws and change the standard for some corruption cases. Senate Bill 686 would make those changes as well as other reforms, including requiring municipal elected officials to file more expansive financial disclosure forms.

But those bills aren’t enough. One of the most important improvements that could be made would be allowing the Florida Commission on Ethics to self-initiate investigations. Currently, the commission in most cases must wait until a complaint is filed to investigate possible ethics violations.

We’re seeing the flaws in that process right now in a case involving a former police union head paying for Gainesville Mayor Ed Braddy’s meals and hotel rooms. The commission couldn’t determine if a ban on public officials accepting gifts from lobbyists or other ethics laws were violated until Braddy himself or others filed a complaint.

Other measures promoted by Integrity Florida include increasing civil penalties for ethics violations to $20,000 from $10,000. The group also recommends restoring a standard allowing the commission to award attorney’s fees only against complainants who maliciously and knowingly file false complaints.

Federal corruption convictions only reveal part of the problem with ethics violations in Florida. They only include people caught and convicted, and don’t include state and local prosecutions.

A statewide grand jury created in February 2010 at the request of then-Gov. Charlie Crist found public officials often escape punishment for corruption in Florida. The act might not be criminalized, the case too difficult to prove, the punishments too lenient or plea bargains taken to avoid negative publicity.

The grand jury concluded that widespread “theft and mismanagement” of public funds in Florida that amounted to a “corruption tax” that increased the cost of public services. Yet its recommendations to fix deficiencies in current law were essentially ignored by the Legislature.

State lawmakers started to address the problem with ethics reforms passed in 2013 and 2014, but didn’t go far enough. The measures endorsed by Integrity Florida would help Florida continue to shed its ranking as one of the most corrupt states in the country.

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