House and Senate Republican leaders hailed a new, tougher ethics standard for public officials as one of the top achievements of the 2013 session.
But legislation filed earlier this month by Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, is drawing heat for clashing with the freshly minted theme of reform.
Clemens’ proposal (SB 606) would lift most gift-reporting requirements for state and local elected officials and public employees; shield officials from ethics complaints if they acted after getting advice from a lawyer; and allow for penalties of as much as $5,000 against someone who files an ethics complaint “with malicious intent.”
Ethics advocates are warning Clemens’ proposal would lower watchdog standards and have a chilling effect on anyone looking to complain.
Clemens said the legislation was sought by the Florida League of Cities. But a lawyer who formerly was the executive director of the Florida Commission on Ethics said claims that the measure is harmless don’t make sense.
“I have to say at the outset, the claim by the League of Cities that ‘the provisions of SB 606 in no way weaken the laws that are on the books’ is simply absurd. It is preposterous to say that this bill would ensure ‘full transparency’ or provide ‘the right tools to enforcement agencies to root out corruption,’ as the League proclaims,” said Phil Claypoole in a memo to Integrity Florida, good government advocates who oppose Clemens’ bill.
Clemens, a former Lake Worth mayor, said he was willing to run bill “up the flagpole.” But given the backlash the legislation is drawing, Clemens said he may reconsider.
He has a meeting scheduled this week with the Ethics Commission’s current executive director, Virlindia Doss, and a representative of the League of Cities.
“It’s still early, and we have time to tighten up the language,” Clemens said. “It’s not my intent to move this bill forward if there are problems.”
Clemens also said he wasn’t looking to scrap ethics laws. But Clemens said that defenses should be enhanced for elected officials who get slapped with unfounded complaints that are politically motivated or aimed at harassing them.
“Politics is a high-stakes game in Florida,” Clemens said. “I was trying to file something that at least could stop these serial complainants from acting.”