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Tired of paper tiger label, ethics panel rattles cage

by John Kennedy | July 27th, 2012

The Florida Commission on Ethics said Friday it was stepping-up its efforts to pursue more than 4,000 public officials who have failed to file their annual financial disclosure reports.

Virlindia Doss, the commission’s executive director, told the panel that staff will be making phone calls to 4,284 officials who have not submitted their 2012 disclosure forms by the July 1 deadline. A grace period gives officials until Sept. 4 to turn in the reports, but after that, fines may be coming.

Doss said the commission also plans to send notices to these officials through certified mail, further nudging them toward compliance. The move could cost state and local taxpayers more than $20,000, but is designed to avoid a protracted fight with scofflaws over $25-per-day penalties which begin accumulating after Sept. 4.

“I am on a mission to reduce the number of people we fine to zero,” Doss told commissioners Friday.

The latest move is part of a strategy adopted by the ethics panel, tired of being derided as what one member said was a perception that it’s a ”paper tiger.”

The panel, though, is hampered by legal restrictions in collecting overdue fines. And as part of an effort of seeking more power from the Legislature to pursue scofflaws, commissioners last month refused to dismiss almost $100,000 in fines piled up by 30 state and local government officials who had failed for years to file financial disclosure forms.

Among those on the list of debtors: Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, who owes $1,500 dating to when he was a legislative aide in the early 2000s and apparently failed to file disclosures. South Bay Commissioner John Wilson also is accused of not filing disclosures and owes $300 since 2005, records show.

The panel’s decision to dig in on the fines was a turnabout from last summer. At that time, the four-year time-limit on the commission’s authority to collect led the panel to write-off about $1 million in fines against 800 officials.

As of Friday, about $86,000 in outdated fines is still pending before commissioners, Doss said.

Commissioner Matthew Carlucci was among those last month making the case for stopping the write-offs. He said that allowing the pile of IOUs to keep rising could help convince lawmakers that the ethics panel needs more muscle.

“The bigger it gets, the bigger hand we have when we go to the Legislature,” Carlucci said.

Lawmakers, who essentially are being asked to approve tougher laws on themselves, have historically ignored the panel’s proposals.

The Ethics Commission, though, is not alone in failing to collect what it’s owed.

The Post reported last fall that more than $800 million in fees, fines and court-ordered payments is owed the state by companies and individuals. Many have ignored their debts for years, with little risk of further punishment.

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