By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
This year’s stab at ethics reform in the Florida Legislature is losing some fans.
Organizations ranging from tea party groups to the liberal Progress Florida have banded together to express concern about a bill intended to improve the state’s ineffective ethics rules. The ethics bill doesn’t go far enough, these groups say.
According to the Associated Press, the bill already passed in its first Florida House committee.
The bill would give the Florida Commission on Ethics more power to collect fines, extend the statute of limitations on violations from four to 20 years and prohibit a House speaker and Senate president from lobbying state agencies and the Legislature until two years after leaving office.
It also would ban lawmakers from taking state jobs and require lawmakers undergo ethics training.
However, opponents allege the bill doesn’t do enough to fix ethics problems in the state and is particularly weaker than its Senate counterpart.
For one, the House bill doesn’t bar lawmakers from lobbying government agencies for two years after they depart from their elected office. The Senate bill, however, does include such a provision. The House bill requires that only the Senate president and the House Speaker must abide by such a rule.
What has groups such as Integrity Florida most concerned, however, is a part of the bill that allows elected officials to fix their financial disclosure forms up to two months after the submission deadline and up to a month after any complaint is filed.
Integrity Florida’s director pointed to former Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll as an example of why passing such a law like would be problematic. The News Service of Florida reported:
But Carroll’s departure loomed over the event, with her name being thrown out as an example of what’s gone wrong with Florida’s ethics laws. Dan Krassner, the executive director of Integrity Florida, pointed to shortcomings in Carroll’s personal disclosure forms when she was a legislator …
According to copies of her disclosures on the Integrity Florida website, Carroll appears to have overstated her net worth by $200 million one year, before amending her filing, and listing mortgages in her liabilities without claiming any real estate assets in some years.
The Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald reported that Phil Claypool, the retired executive director of the Commission on Ethics, had more misgivings about the bill. According to the Times/Herald, Claypool pointed out problems with:
- Providing for blind trusts for elected officials that “blind” the public from holdings that could be conflicts of interest, by excluding the ethics commission’s recommendations, such as requiring public disclosure of the assets that are in the trust.
- Prohibiting the ethics commission from investigating cases if an official’s mistakes were “immaterial or inconsequential.”
Initially, groups from both sides of the political spectrum were hopeful that this would be the year of meaningful ethics reform. While there is still time for the bill to change significantly before it gets to a final vote, conservative and progressive groups warn that big changes need to happen first for Florida to have true ethics reform.
In the past, state legislators have tried to reform the state’s ethics laws, but have failed to get anything passed. Last year, for example, lawmakers tried to make it harder for legislators to write laws that would benefit them personally.
The effort to change ethics laws was shot down when it became clear that state lawmakers — who decide how much money universities receive from the state — could not hold a job or a contract with a university in the state at the same time if the ethics bill passed.
Republican Senate President Don Gaetz co-sponsored the bill last year, but he was unable to sell his colleagues on its necessity. Both Gaetz and Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford have said they are committed to passing an ethics reform bill this session.