Public officials and employees owe Florida $15,800 for filing their financial disclosure forms late, Integrity Florida reports. (Photo by Neil.)

By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Integrity Florida, a state-based ethics watchdog, reports that as of September 5, 632 state and local elected officials are filing their financial disclosure forms late and owe $15,800 in fines, according to the Florida Commission on Ethics.

The group reports that these late filers “will be subject to $25 per day fines up to a $1500 cap (60 days late) … [which] could be as high as $948,000 if none of these disclosures are filed within the next 60 days”:

Should the Florida Commission on Ethics receive a financial disclosure form from any of these officials with a postmark on or before September 4, then all of their fines will be waived.  In 2011,  the Florida Commission on Ethics had a 99% collection rate with the final list of late filers totaling 361 out of 37,686 officials required to file.  As of September 5, the Ethics Commission is at a collection rate of more than 98% with 632 late filers out of 37,532 Florida public officials and employees required to file financial disclosure forms in 2012.

There are also 66 current and former Florida officials and employees who owe the state  $87,199.03 in fines for filing their financial disclosures late in the past, as of July 9, 2012, the group wrote in a recent report.

Integrity Florida also noted that the paperwork and notices involved in reminding politicians to turn in their disclosure forms comes at a cost to taxpayers:

4,284 late filers were mailed certified notices (required by statute) by either the Florida Commission on Ethics or one of the 67 Supervisors of Elections, depending on the individual’s position, on July 31st at a cost of more than $20,000 to Florida taxpayers ($4.75 each).

2,313 late filers were mailed a reminder postcard (not required by statute) by the Florida Commission on Ethics around August 10 at a cost of $0.32 each.

Integrity Florida has been calling on the Florida Legislature to make changes to the system in which late filers are penalized, among other things.

According to a report released in July about financial disclosure laws in the state, the group prescribed making late filers “subject to automatic fines withheld from the government wages (or government contract payments) of someone who currently is in office or employment or otherwise is being paid by Florida governments.” The group also suggested that “liens on personal property should also be considered to apply to automobiles or other significant assets to enforce fines.”

The state of Florida also uses a less detailed financial disclosure form compared to other states, such as Louisiana.

Mostly, the state’s system is pretty antiquated. Looking for and looking through financial disclosure forms, which are public records, can be cumbersome. Integrity Florida has recommended the state require public employees and officials to file their financial disclosure documents electronically — as well as make it “publicly available online in a searchable, updatable and downloadable format.”

Among other noteworthy changes that would shine light on possible ethical violations, the group suggests that all cabinet officials, state legislators, state agency heads and local elected officials be required to “disclose details of all major financial transactions over $1,000 within the previous year, including stock trades, property transactions and changes in business ownership.”