Commission Wants Tougher Ethics Laws
Responding to criticism that Florida’s ethics laws are too weak, the state panel charged with enforcing those laws wants Florida legislators to make sweeping changes in the coming year.
Among the changes: A requirement that the governor and other top state officials place their investments in a blind trust as well as a tough new standard intended to crack down on politicians who avoid ethics charges for technical reasons.
Several members of the Florida Commission on Ethics said they were annoyed at the public perception that the commission is ineffective.
“Just because we don’t hang everybody doesn’t mean we’re not effective,’’ said Albert Massey, a Fort Lauderdale attorney and commission member.
Commissioners spent more than an hour debating what changes they want the Florida Legislature to take up during its 2010 session. Part of the debate centered over whether or not lawmakers would be willing to accept some of the proposals, but one member argued that they should not worry about whether something will eventually pass.
“It’s the right thing to do,’’ said Frank Kruppenbacher, an Orlando attorney. “The people in the state look to us to say ‘here’s what ought to happen.’’
The commission has come up with roughly 17 pages of recommendations, many of which are minor, but also are aimed at issues that have repeatedly come before the commission. Some of the suggested changes include tweaking Florida’s gift ban law so it applies the same way to executive branch lobbyists as lobbyists who appear before the Legislature, as well as tightening the state’s anti-nepotism and voting conflict laws.
One key recommendation is one the ethics commission has pushed for several years: A requirement that the governor, the lieutenant governor and members of the Cabinet place their investments in a blind trust.
This change would shield elected officials from allegations of wrongdoing but would also limit how much information they could receive about the trust during their time in office. The push for this recommendation stems from ethics charges leveled back in 2006 against former Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher, who invested in companies that were doing business with the state. Former Gov. Jeb Bush and current Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink placed their investments in a blind trust upon taking office.
Under the proposal approved on Friday, the trust could not be controlled by another elected official or a relative. The trustee could also not disclose information to the elected official about the sources of income or holdings in the trust. And while the trust would have to be reported on financial disclosure forms, the elected official would not be required to disclose the sources of income included in the trust.
The ethics commission also agreed to ask for a new state law that would regulate the “appearance of impropriety” by requiring politicians to make sure that they act in the public interest and not appear to do favors or act under the influence of someone else.
Commission chairman Cheryl Forchilli said she thought that idea was “way too vague” and would be hard to apply in individual cases. But other commissioners said that it was time to apply all elected officials to the same type of standards that judges must already follow.
Kruppenbacher said that the ethics commission is repeatedly forced to clear people because of a strict reading of the law.
“You talk about the public thinking we don’t do anything and having a perception problem with the commission,’’ said Kruppenbacher. “ It’s because we keep getting neutered with the language. We are saying to the Legislature, ‘Give us the power…to inherently use our judgment to know when somebody in elected or appointed office has acted contrary.’’'