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Ethics bill asks lawmakers to police themselves

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Florida Senate
Sen. John Thrasher (R)

By Lynn Hatter

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Tallahassee, FL – When it comes to politicians and ethics, Florida has a bit of a problem. Now the state legislature is trying to crack down on ethics and corruption charges that have plagued everyone from local communities to the legislature itself. But as Lynn Hatter reports, when it comes to implementing stronger ethics laws, lawmakers appear willing to kick and scream all the way to reform.

State Senator John Thrasher is sponsoring a measure to bar the legislature from voting on bills they or their families may have a financial stake in. The bill comes in the wake of at least two major cases involving the Florida legislature; The recently dropped corruption case against former House Speaker Ray Sansom over an appropriation to a friend to build an airplane hanger, and a formal reprimand of Senate President Mike Haridopolos for failing to properly file financial disclosure statements. Thrasher says the bill is a response to a report from the statewide grand jury, which recommended changes to the way public officials do business.

"The bill prohibits legislators from voting on measures that will give themselves, relatives or certain business associates a private gain or loss, and requires them to provide notice of their interest before committee vote or on the floor."

It also changes the way lawmakers file and manage campaign contributions and financial disclosure statements, but gives a grace period to make corrections without facing penalties. State Senator Paula Dockery, who also has supported an ethics bill for the last few years, had questions about some of the language on personal gain and interests.

"It was not our intention that the legislator could not vote on that issue if they did not directly know that a different client that they were not working directly with had an issue with the legislature. It was our intent that they would not be putting legislation forward, but there had to be some direct knowledge there, Have you taken that out completely now?"

Dockery has proposed a bill to strengthen Florida's ethics laws and part of her proposal dealing with lawmakers and conflict-of-interest voting is rolled into Thrasher's bill. The issue of direct and indirect benefits piqued the interest of other lawmakers, like Senator Nancy Detert.

"I was a school board member and we could not vote on anything that would financially benefit ourselves. However, this seems like such an expansion that we'd fall into some kind of trap, and then we're passing it along to county and local offices."

Detert gives an example of a school board member who votes for raises for teacher's while married to a teacher.

"You're going to financially benefit from that decision. Now year's ago they said it would only be if you personally benefit, not a large group. So carry that over to the legislation. If you're a legislator and a developer, that votes for wonderful things that financially benefit developers. Do you fall under this? Does it inure to your benefit? Or are you exempt because it benefits a large group? I'm finding this a little confusing. How do you know you're doing the right thing?"

Detert isn't the only one confused. Other members of the board asked similar questions, and Democratic Representative Arthenia Joyner says the bill could be problematic.

"We've got to narrow this down so that I'm not operating as if someone has a hatchet over me every hour of everyday now."

In an effort to clear things up, Florida Ethics Commission head Phil Claypool says lawmakers can cover themselves by simply disclosing their interests.

"The language in the bill is the same language that's in the law, and current law simply requires disclosure. The bill goes further requiring abstention in voting conflicts, the language of financial gain is already in the Senate rules, so there's already that concept which I am sure you've been dealing with.
Bill sponsor Senator John Thrasher says lawmakers can only try to do the right thing, but at least one lawmaker, Senator Paula Dockery, says the bill doesn't go far enough.

"What we wanted to get to was not only a vote, because one of every 40 votes may not make that much of a difference, it was the participation of the legislator in advancing the bill via sponsoring, lobbying or possibly arm-twisting on a bill. That's really my concern. This bill seems a lot weaker than Senate Bill 86 by virtue of leaving out one little word and that is participation'."

But Thrasher says it's all about adding more clarity to a confusing system.

"Anyone can file an ethics complaint against you, no question about that, I've had my share. I had one filed when I was on the Board of Trustees at Florida State University while I was in the legislature because it was perceived as a conflict. But I think if we have this conversation, and we know what the rules and parameters are, then I think we're better prepared to defend those that do come, when they come."

Despite the questions, concerns and grumblings, the Senate's Rules Committee cleared the bill, passing it unanimously. It still has two more committee stops to make. If it becomes law, it would also apply to local government as well.