Legislative Leaders Say They'll Bite the Hand That Fed Them

By: Jim Turner | Posted: November 15, 2012 3:55 AM

The leaders of both chambers of the state Legislature intend to make ethics reform a hallmark of their tenures, with House Speaker-designate Will Weatherford joining the call to eliminate campaign committees such as the one he employs to help bankroll preferred candidates.

The Wesley Chapel Republican said he would favor raising the cap on contributions that state candidates can receive above $500 per election cycle -- $1,000 from any individual in both the primary and general election -- if committees of continuous existence (CCEs) could be abolished.

“Part of the premise of what I’m trying to do is acknowledge the fact that you can’t take money out of the process,” Weatherford said. “There are people who are going to contribute to campaigns one way or another, but there is a way for us to make it more transparent.”

Calling the current $500 cap “archaic,” Weatherford suggested that his proposal could be derailed if the effort is painted in the media as a push for legislative candidates to get larger contributions.

Weatherford’s own Committee for a Conservative House generated more than $2 million this year, but also ran afoul of the incoming speaker who called a hit piece from the CCE “completely inappropriate” that tied Democratic House candidate Kathy Castor Dentel to convicted former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.

An ethics and election committee will be assigned to review such a proposal, Weatherford said.

Committee appointments have yet to be set.

Senate President-designate Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, had already declared that ethics reform, that includes the elimination of CCEs, will be high on the list of his priorities while running the upper chamber.

Gaetz, who has used his own CCE -- the Florida Leadership Alliance -- to help bankroll a number of Senate campaigns, has also proposed:

-- Making financial disclosure of legislators more accessible to the public.

-- Ending the conflict-of-interest requirement that allows senators to wait 15 days before announcing something they voted on may financially benefit them or their families.

-- Allowing lawmakers to land jobs because of their legislative work.

Gaetz wouldn’t question the University of Florida teaching position given to Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, because Haridopolos had been a college teacher when he first was elected. Nor would he worry if someone returned to a government career in which he or she had served prior to being elected.  

But public officials otherwise shouldn’t collect a second government paycheck, he said.

Gaetz’s concern with CCEs is that some lawmakers in both parties have reportedly used them to cover daily expenses outside the political purpose of the committee.

The Florida Commission on Ethics has already crafted 11 proposed ethics reforms for the 2013 legislative session, with a priority on measures that would increase the civil fine the commission can impose, from $10,000 to $25,000, and to strengthen the requirements for elected officials to submit their annual financial disclosure forms.

Integrity Florida, a start-up nonprofit focused on ethics reforms, in June released a study, “Corruption Risk Report: Florida Ethics Laws,” that outlined the following areas where the state needs to address its corruption problem:

-- Allow the Florida Commission on Ethics to initiate investigation instead of waiting for a complaint to be filed.

-- Establish a state corruption hotline at the state attorney general’s office or the Commission on Ethics.

-- Include private vendors handling state money to be under the state ethics codes.

-- Require top officials to disclose all personal financial transactions -- stock trades, property transactions -- worth more than $1,000.

-- Create an online filing system that can be made public.

-- Mandate Sunshine Law and public records training for all elected officials.

-- Increase the maximum civil penalty for ethic law violations from $10,000 to $25,000.

-- Improve the ability of the state to collection fines by including liens on personal property.

Reach Jim Turner at jturner@sunshinestatenews.com or at (772) 215-9889.

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