Government Watchdog Group Posts Big Bend Legislators Financial Info. Online

Jul 30, 2012

A Tallahassee-based government watchdog group wants Florida to broaden its public records laws. Integrity Florida says state and local officials need to be more transparent in their government dealings. The group is calling for an overhaul of Florida’s disclosure system and has put the records of state officials, including those who represent Leon and surrounding counties, online.

“Citizens should take a look at the forms and see if someone has increased their net worth and compare it to their voting record. But we’ll leave it up to citizens to decide if someone did something wrong," said Integrity Florida's Dan Krasser in explaining the financial disclosure reports.

Krassner says the line between what's okay and what isn't is often vague. Take for instance a lawmakers job. several lawmakers including those in the Big Bend have jobs outside the state legisature. State Senator Bill Montford is one of them. Montford's net worth rose slightly to a little under $2 million in his most recent filings. Montford also heads the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.  The association employs a lobbyist who frequently speaks before many of the education committees Montford sits on. Montford held that job long before he was elected to the senate. And Integrity Florida’s Dan Krassner when it comes to outside jobs, it depends on whether the lawmaker had the job prior to being elected and whether they benefited from it.

“Some of these outside jobs that lawmakers have, we need to question whether they had these jobs because they entered office or did they have them before they entered office?” 

Montford hasn’t been shy about his position. The Senator says his years dealing with education issues have shaped his views on policy and he also says his knowledge on the state’s education system has been a boost to his performance as a lawmaker. He also says he doesn’t  see his ties with the association conflicting with his role as a legislator.

“As long as you are open and honest about it, I don’t think there’s a problem. And that means that there’s no question in anyone’s mind about what I do for a living in addition to being a state senator.” 

State laws are often murky on what elected officials do and don’t have to disclose. The organization is calling for stronger laws on potential conflict of interest votes and also wants financial disclosures to be posted online to make it easier for people to access them.  Wilcox says one area the state should start with clearing up exactly WHAT lawmakers should and shouldn’t list.

 “It just points to the inconsistency in the whole filing process. We’re hoping that the Florida legislature will improve the financial disclosure list for public officials. That’s why we put out this information," said Integrity Florida's Ben Wilcox.

One local lawmaker with a long list of disclosures is state Representative Michelle Rehwinkle-Vasilinda. She had little over a million dollars in 2011 but that’s down to $888,000this year. And out of 200 state lawmakers, Vasilinda was one of only 12 who listed potential voting conflicts.

 “It’s not a bad thing when you see people who had potential voting conflicts in our report. It’s a good thing they disclosed it. So let’s make sure that when we look at these potential conflicts we’re recognizing those that disclosed because I am sure there are others who didn’t disclose" Krassner said.

Vasilinda also disclosed a little over $1800 dollars worth of gifts in the form of travel expenses from two non-lobbyist groups. Such gifts aren’t illegal under the state’s gift ban law because they don’t come from lobbying groups.

Financial disclosure statements also revealed that some local lawmakers saw big changes in their net worth since being in office. When Representative Alan Williams was first elected he was worth around $72,000. Today, he’s more than doubled that figure. Representative Marti Coley saw her net worth drop by about $ 40,000 from the time she was first elected in 2005.  At the time she was worth almost  $400,000. But leading the pack was Senator Charlie Dean, who saw the biggest change in his financial fortunes, which went from a little under a million dollars when he was first elected in 2002, up to more than $4.7 million today.

Integrity Florida also has a list of more than 66 current and former state officials and employees who owe more than $87,000 dollars in unpaid ethics fines for late disclosures. Included in that list is a Quincy Code enforcement employee who owes more than $3,000 in fines.