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A new public interest group based in Tallahassee reports that Florida has one of the worst records in the nation on ethics enforcement and that we have had the most public officials arrested on corruption charges compared to the other 49 states.
It’s nice to be number one at something.
The U.S. Justice Department, between the years 2000 to 2010, prosecuted more public officials on corruption charges in Florida than anywhere else, according to a comparison released by Integrity Florida, a new watchdog group based in the state’s capital. The reassuring thing about Integrity Florida is that it’s not a partisan election-year group doing a hack job on political opponents. The group is made up of Republicans, Democrats and even tea party members. And its members are serious about ethics reform in our state.
If you don’t believe corruption is a big problem in our area, all you have to do is look one county to the north — in Levy County — where two of their five county commissioners are now in federal prison for accepting cash for their support of a planned development.
Back in the days of Gov. Reuben Askew, Florida was known as the Sunshine State because we had the best open-government laws in the nation. The public had access to almost every public record and it was easier to root out conflicts and ethics violations.
But every time the Florida Legislature has met since Gov. Askew’s term, the politicians have spent energy creating exemptions that hide records and limit public access. While some of the exemptions made sense, the avalanche of excuses now limits Floridians from completely understanding what government is doing with their money.
Admittedly, the crooked politicians have become much more sophisticated over the past three decades.
The corruption today has less to do with handing off bags filled with money than it does with the more subtle relationship between politicians and people seeking favors. So many members of the Legislature, and participants in local government, have private companies that do work with large businesses seeking favors.
The politicians do the favors, and coincidentally other work from those large businesses ends up being done by the company owned or affiliated with the politician.
It’s very hard to connect the dots and it’s next to impossible to legislate integrity. Some people have it and some don’t. Those born without integrity will end up finding creative ways to line their own pockets.
The Integrity Florida group wants to see reforms that make it easier for the Florida Commission on Ethics to investigate and prosecute corruption. How can you argue with that?
One of the key components of the reforms sought includes giving the Ethics Commission the right to start its own investigations. Right now, it can only respond if a citizen files a complaint.
The group also wants the financial disclosure rules to include vendors who do business with government. Right here in Citrus County, a private corporation runs the county jail in Lecanto. Because it is private, the same rules of open records do not apply. But they are using tax dollars to perform a public function. We the taxpayers should still have complete access to how those dollars are spent.
The ethics reforms would also require elected officials to report all major personal financial transactions. Somehow, these guys get to Tallahassee and think it is appropriate to use insider knowledge to make investments and generate personal wealth. Other legislators think it’s fine to accept huge book deals or teaching contracts from the colleges whose budgets they oversee.
Integrity Florida also wants Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature to put some teeth into the Ethics Commission. Right now, the group can fine politicians for ethics violations, but many of the officials don’t even pay the fines.
Apparently, there is no enforcement provision in the law.
How does that make sense?
n A short integrity story from Citrus County’s past. Years ago, Sheriff B.R. Quinn called me up late one evening to tell me an inmate had escaped from the county jail.
That inmate, Bruce Burcham, was serving time on a murder conviction and was back in town for an appeal hearing. Bruce was the best tile man in town and apparently the guys at the jail felt it was OK for him to work during the day on the new Burger King being built on U.S. 41.
Since Bruce started work early each day at the Burger King, the jailers felt it was appropriate to leave the jail door open so he could get to work on time.
Realizing that his appeal was going nowhere, Bruce decided a better plan was for him to disappear.
Here is where the integrity part comes in — Sheriff Quinn pulled me down to the jail in the middle of the night to tell me the entire story. He didn’t try to make excuses and immediately admitted that he did a really dumb thing by permitting Bruce to leave the jail.
What you also need to know is that after 28 years in office, Sheriff Quinn was fighting for his political life in an election against this young guy named Charlie Dean.
Sheriff Quinn had the integrity to tell me that story, and I reported it in the Chronicle. Charlie Dean went on to win the election, and most folks felt it was the Bruce Burcham escape that was the turning point.
Sheriff Quinn had the personal integrity to do the right thing and admit his mistake even though he knew it was going to cost him.
You can’t legislative that kind of integrity, but we should never forget there are plenty of honest public officials who do the right thing regardless of the consequences.
Gerry Mulligan is the publisher of the Chronicle. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.