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Ethics Reform Could Be Losing Its Way

A North Florida senator briefly halted his crusade Monday to root out government corruption when he temporarily postponed his legislation.

Former Senate President Don Gaetz of Niceville wants to clamp down on waste, fraud and abuse, but it’s testing the limits of his considerable clout.

If everything had gone according to plan, Gatez would have presented a watered down ethics bill to the Senate Government Oversight and Accountability Committee on Monday.

The bill is called, simply enough, government accountability. But it’s not the slam dunk the name suggests. At the last minute, the bill was yanked from the agenda and put on temporary hold.

That’s not a good sign for supporters, admits Ben Wilcox, a lobbyist for Common Cause of Florida.

“It is a difficult task to get these ethics and anti-corruption bills moving through the Legislature. So we appreciate the Legislature taking the time, trying to work these things out, so that we can move these things forward.”

Gaetz and other lawmakers have reforms written into a handful of bills in a shotgun strategy that makes it confusing to track and, supporters hope, difficult to defeat.

But when the legislation hit Government Oversight and Accountability a few weeks ago, Gaetz ran into a buzz saw in the form of fellow Republican and political rival Jack Latvala of Clearwater.

“Senator Gaetz, I know how to read…Well I understand that, Senator Latvala…I’m looking for an explanation in layman’s language that we can all understand instead of just re-reading the amendment.”

Among other things, Gaetz is determined to get rid of a legal speed bump for prosecutors. Under current law, even catching a crooked politician on tape taking a bribe isn’t enough. The law says the state must also prove the suspect acted with quote, “corrupt intent.”

Essentially, Gaetz says, that means proving what the criminal was thinking.

“Under current law, a state attorney not only has to prove that a bribe or a payoff was offered or accepted, but must also prove that there was malicious intent.”

Gaetz’s wants that changed so a prosecutor only has to prove the suspect acted, quote, “knowingly.”

But Latvala and other critics are worried about setting the bar too low. Two weeks ago, they complained a contractor could wind up indicted for giving a legislator a Thanksgiving turkey.  Senator Alan Hays of Umatilla compares it to a gift ban.

“I want us, I want our industry, to continue to be able to enjoy social life.

Gaetz has another problem. One of his biggest allies is proving to be a liability.

Gannett Co., Inc., publisher of USA Today and three Florida newspapers, called for the ethics changes in the wake of a scandal at the Canaveral Port Authority.

But when the company took the unusual step of sending Florida Today editorial writer Matt Reed to testify for the bill, Latvala complained about media intimidation.

“Maybe that’s how we sell newspapers these days. I don’t know. But I’m just not, you know, I’m rebelling at that as much as anything. I just think it’s wrong.”

Here’s Republican John Legg of Lutz.

“I’ve never been in this process before where a reporter is actually advocating for a law as a news agency. Not for the industry.”

Reed essentially told the committee he and his bosses are tied of legislative inaction.

“After five years of editorializing and writing for change, I’m not seeing anything happen on behalf of our readers…”

Gaetz wants to make a host of other changes. One of them would give the Florida Commission on Ethics the power to initiate its own investigations. Common Causes’ Wilcox thinks a stronger watchdog would have a significant deterrent effect.

“You know the Florida Commission on Ethics is perceived by the public as being weak. And giving the commission on ethics the ability to self-initiative an investigation into a possible ethics violation would, I think, give the public more confidence.”

But that provision was notably absent Monday from the compromise proposal that was put on hold.

A Miami native, former WFSU reporter Jim Ash is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience, most of it in print. He has been a member of the Florida Capital Press Corps since 1992.