Senate Committee Approves Major State Ethics Overhaul

By: Eric Giunta | Posted: January 23, 2013 3:55 AM
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Pam Bondi, left, and Jack Latvala, right

The 13-member Florida Senate Ethics and Elections Committee approved legislation Tuesday afternoon, by a unanimous vote, that chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, is calling the most sweeping electoral reform attempted by the Legislature in 36 years.

The committee, made up of eight Republicans and five Democrats, passed two bills, tentatively numbered SB 7006 and SB 7008. The proposed laws were sponsored by the committee, which means they had the express support of Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Destin. The bills will soon be assigned to the Rules Committee and others for review and approval before heading to the Senate floor for a vote.

"A unanimous vote is a very good, strong indication that we're committed to ethics reform this year," Latvala told reporters after the meeting adjourned.

Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, have both said that ethics reform would be a priority this legislative session. If passed by the Legislature, SB 7006 would amend the Florida statutes in several respects, including:

  • requiring all “constitutional officers” – i.e., the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, chief financial officer, agriculture commissioner, state attorneys, public defenders, sheriffs, tax collectors, property appraisers, supervisors of elections, clerks of circuit court, county commissioners, school board members, and school superintendents – to complete at least 4 hours of special ethics training;
  • prohibiting a state legislator from voting on matters that would result in his “special private gain”;
  • requiring the establishment of a searchable online public database of all legislators’ and constitutional officers’ financial disclosures;
  • allowing the Florida Commission on Ethics to collect unpaid financial disclosure fines by garnishment of wages and authorizing the commission to obtain a lien on the filer’s real property;
  • prohibiting public officials from using their outside fundraising groups to provide gifts that aren't “primarily related” to the groups’ work;
  • prohibiting former legislators from lobbying any government agency for a period of two years after leaving the Legislature (the Florida Constitution already prohibits legislators from lobbying their former legislative body for a period of two years after leaving office).
That last measure, called a “revolving door” policy, caused some unintended stir when Attorney General Pam Bondi unexpectedly walked into the committee meeting after being alerted to a message “tweeted” by the League of Women Voters of Florida, which mischaracterized remarks by Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, as having accused her office of dubious hiring practices.

Soto and the other senators assured Bondi that no such allegation has been made, and the League later tweeted an apology to the attorney general for “incorrectly paraphrasing Senator Soto's remarks.”

More substantive controversy surrounded another provision of SB 7006: an amendment, filed by Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, which prohibits all government officials from obtaining new public employment after qualifying for elected office.

The original version of SB 7006 contained a dual public employment prohibition that applied only to state legislators, and attorney Ryan Padgett spoke on behalf of the Florida League of Cities, which opposes the amendment. Padgett argued the amendment was too broad in its scope and prohibited dual employment even where there would be no conceivable conflict of interest.

Senators were not persuaded, and the amendment was approved unanimously.

Ben Wilcox, lobbyist for the League of Women Voters of Florida; Dan Krasner, director of Integrity Florida; and Matt Carlucci, on behalf of the Florida Commission on Ethics, each voiced their organization's support for the amended legislation.

SB 7008 exempts from public records requests and from the state sunshine laws written referrals for ethics complaints, and Ethics Commission deliberations on referrals, until such time as the commission determines whether they are worthy of investigation.

A House version of these bills has not yet been filed.

"The Senate began the approval process for the most sweeping ethics reform in more than 30 years this afternoon," Gaetz said in a statement after the votes. "This bill stands as a bright line warning to those who would use public office for private gain, and as a tribute to those who treat public office as an obligation for service and sacrifice."

Reach Eric Giunta at egiunta@sunshinestatenews.com or at (954) 235-9116. 

Comments (1)

1:34PM JAN 23RD 2013
It always makes me laugh when the governmental solution to abuse of power, bribes, self-serving, etc. is a 4 hour course. You are either ethical or not based on your character. If you want to fix unethical behavior then you need mandatory punishments, like expulsion, loss of pension, fines and or imprisonment. Without teeth no one is afraid of the dog. Put teeth in the legislation and you will change behaviors.

Anything short of a "No" vote by a legislator on matters that will result in personal gain should be considered unethical. Just abstaining is not enough due to the personal friendships of fellow legislators.

How about considering banning lawyers from the legislature since the laws they pass could result in personal gain through the law practice? At least the laws will be in English for the "common folk."

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