Florida tops in public corruption, changes needed, watchdog saysby John Kennedy | June 6th, 2012
With Florida leading the nation in federal public corruption convictions over the past decade, a watchdog group Wednesday urged the state Legislature to give more investigative power to the state’s Commission on Ethics.
Palm Beach County has contributed its share to the statistics, with four county commissioners convicted of corruption charges over a four year period ending in 2010. Integrity Florida, a research organization, said the first step should be for lawmakers to pay attention to the wish list of proposals the ethics panel is expected to approve June 15.
Among the recommendations — some a repeat from earlier years — is that the panel be authorized to begin its own investigations of possible wrongdoing, without waiting for a citizen complaint. Similar calls have been ignored in the past by lawmakers, but Integrity Florida leaders said next year could prove different.
“2013 will be the year we see ethics reforms finally happen in Florida,” said Dan Krassner, executive director of Integrity Florida, who co-authored the report on Florida with research director Ben Wilcox.
The report concluded that Florida had 781 public corruption convictions between 2000 and 2010, tops in the nation. California and Texas were close behind, with New York fourth. But Florida’s corruptions history also contributed to it having three cities listed this year among Forbes’ magazine’s ‘most miserable,’ with Miami #1, West Palm Beach #4 and Fort Lauderale #7.
Krassner said he has had three meetings with leading officials in Gov. Rick Scott’s administration on the issue. Tea party organizations and the Florida League of Women Voters also have joined the call for tougher ethics standards, he said.
Other proposals Integrity Florida is backing include creating a corruption hotline, requiring more financial disclosure for public officials, and making it easiner to obtain ethics convictions in cases that go to court. Some of the provisions are included in what the Ethics Commission is expected to recommend to the Legislature later this month.
But the commission that day also is scheduled to consider again writing-off thousands of dollars in penalties imposed against public officials who failed to file state-required financial disclosure forms. The commission prides itself on having a compliance rate of 99 percent for officials submitting their forms, but state law currently gives scofflaws an incentive for waiting out the commission.
A four-year time limit on the commission’s ability to collect led last summer to about $1 million in fines against 800 public officials being written off.
Most of the accused had served on professional boards, pension committees and other panels that generally make up the low minor leagues of state politics. But at least one served as a mayor and ran in 2010 for the state Senate: former North Miami Beach Mayor Joe Celestin. He owed $3,000 in fines accumulated in 2003 and 2005.
Also on the agenda June 14 is Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, who owes $1,500 dating to when he served as a legislative aide in the early 2000s and apparently failed to file disclosures. Fresen didn’t return calls from the Post seeking comment.