House Subcommittee Calls Ethics-Reform Bill 'A Work In Progress'

Mar 19, 2013

The House Ethics and Elections Subcommittee is putting forth its version of ethics reform on Tuesday, two weeks after the Senate unanimously passed its sweeping ethics package on day one of session. The House committee chairman is calling the effort “a work in progress.”

The House ethics bill comes out amidst some criticism against the Senate version. A bipartisan coalition, including Progress Florida and the Florida Tea Party Network, has been complaining that neither bill gives the state Commission on Ethics enough investigative power or enforcement power.

Chairman of the House Ethics and Elections Subcommittee, Rep. Jim Boyd (R-Bradenton) said, he’s proud of his committee’s work, but he has no doubt,  there’s still room for improvement.

“We want to make this the best bill that we can, and we want to hold ourselves out as the model in the country for truly what ethics means and stands for. And I know each one of us on this panel will hold ourselves to a high degree of accountability. And so, we will do what we can before this gets to the next stop to listen to your concerns,” Boyd said.

Among those voicing concerns at Tuesday’s hearing was Ethics Commissioner Matt Carlucci.

“We would like as many tools as we could possibly have,” he said.

Carlucci’s statement came in response to the omission of a provision allowing the commission to take out liens against the property of officials who owe ethics fines. As it stands now, the commission would be granted the power to garnish officials’ wages, but commissioners want liens added back in.

And, Carlucci said, he wants an additional power for the commission:

“Give the Commission, one day, the ability to act upon its own investigations, without complaints, because I think if you know the reputation, past and present, we’re not looking for trouble. We’re not looking to cause people problems,” he said. “And one day I envision there will be an appetite for that.”

According to nonpartisan government watchdog group Integrity Florida, most Floridians are already in favor of the commission being able to start its own investigations.

But not everyone agrees that’s a good idea. Rep. Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala) said, there’s a delicate balance between government accountability and outright harassment of elected officials.

“Quite frankly, I don’t want the ethics commission, just because someone wrote a negative article, to be able to launch an investigation,” Baxley said. “I think the complaint process is reasonable.”

As it stands, people must submit sworn complaints to the ethics commission. The House bill would also allow complaints to be referred from the governor, Department of Law Enforcement or the state or U.S. attorney general.

Some on the panel questioned whether members of the public should also be allowed to submit complaints anonymously. But Virlindia Doss, executive director of the ethics commission, said, that could overwhelm her office.

“That’s going to create a huge volume for us because people who are unhappy tend to find our phone number fairly quickly,” she said.

While the bill passed unanimously, some members, like ranking Democrat on the committee, Janet Cruz said, it should go further toward holding public officials accountable.

“I’m really most concerned with the financial disclosure portion of the bill,” Cruz said. “This is not a step forward but a step backward.”

The bill lets candidates amend financial-disclosure forms 60 days after they file them, or 30 days after any complaint is filed against them. This has critics saying, officials have no incentive to be accurate or honest.

Another complaint against the House bill is, while it prohibits the Senate President and House Speaker from lobbying for two years after they serve, it stops short of making that same prohibition for all elected officials. That’s one area where the Senate bill goes farther.