Ethics panel drops pursuit of almost $200K in finesby John Kennedy | June 17th, 2011
The Florida Commission on Ethics walked away Friday from almost $200,000 in fines owed by dozens of public officials — acknowledging the scofflaws had outlasted a four-year statutory limit on the penalties.
The decision is the first of several free passes likely to be issued by the commission in coming months. The penalties dropped Friday covered only officials who began accumulating fines 10 years ago for failing to file state-required financial disclosure reports.
But more than $300,000 is owed by almost 300 former public officials for fines building between 2001 and 2006. The commission is likely to drop their pursuit of those from later years, but Commission vice-chair Robert Sniffen said Friday’s move sends a bad message, especially to those who seek to comply with disclosure laws.
“What really kills me on this is that we have folks who come here from around the state, present their case and plead for clemency if they’ve made a mistake,” Sniffen said. “Those are the people I feel the worst for. The diligent, who take their medicine, pay their fines and move on.
“Then there’s those who flaunt the limitations of the commission. It’s shameful that you don’t respect the authority of this commission enough to pay the debt you are incurring,” he concluded.
The 168 officials absolved Friday by the commission typically served on municipal boards, pension committees and other public organizations that make up the low-minor leagues of state politics. Those from Palm Beach County included Allison Harty, a former Delray Beach city clerk whose $1,500 fine dates to 2001; Christopher Decker, who served on the Lantana Firefighters Board of Trustees in 2001, also owes $1,500, according to ethics panel records.
Decker and Harty couldn’t be reached this week. Indeed, the commission has dropped penalties after those on the list apparently for years avoided two collection agencies the state has used to pursue debtors.
The commission was told that sometimes, fines are paidby former officials seeking to clear the debt off a credit report. But commission staff conceded it wasn’t certain the unpaid penalties prove much of an obstacle for those who don’t pay.
Commission records show the nine-member panel collected $74,333 in 2010 from public officials penalized for not submitting financial disclosure forms. The compliance rate for those required to file reports also has reached 99 percent, up from 92 percent a decade earlier, the commission said.
Still, Friday’s write-off comes after the state’s financial disclosure laws have moved into sharper focus.
Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, was admonished this spring by the Senate for failing to fully disclose his financial holdings over a five-year span, including a $400,000 Lake County home he and his wife own and consulting work which paid him $120,000 between 2004 and 2008. Haridopolos now is seeking the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, challenging Democrat Bill Nelson.
Tampa Sen. Jim Norman, a Republican, needed an appeals court ruling last fall to be reinstated after a lower court disqualified him as a candidate for filing a flawed financial disclosure form. Norman failed to disclose a $500,000 house listed in his wife’s name. A federal grand jury subpoenaed employment records last month of a Norman legislative aide and longtime associate.
A statewide grand jury last December issued a 127-page report condemning Florida’s reputation for public corruption and calling for criminalizing several acts currently only punishable by civil penalties under the state’s ethics code. The Legislature, however, didn’t act on the panel’s recommendations this spring.