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Grand Jury: Lawmakers Should Repeal "Corruption Tax"

By: Michael Peltier, David Royse, and Kathleen Haughney, The News Service of Florida
By: Michael Peltier, David Royse, and Kathleen Haughney, The News Service of Florida

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Dec. 29, 2010 --

Florida ethics officials need more authority to investigate and more power to punish public officials and others for what amounts to a “Florida corruption tax” that is eroding public trust and stealing taxpayers’ money, a statewide grand jury said Wednesday.

More than a year after being asked by Gov. Charlie Crist to investigate a “culture of corruption” in Florida, the grand jury submitted findings to the Florida Supreme Court, essentially agreeing with Crist. Existing deterrents are not enough to stem the tide of graft that prompted the governor to sanction more than 33 officials during his four-year tenure, the grand jurors said.

“Better efforts to prevent and penalize corruption are necessary in order to stop fraud, waste, and abuse of our state resources,” the panelists said in a 127-page report and list of recommendations. “Given the serious fiscal limitations at all levels of government, anti-corruption efforts must stop the theft and mismanagement of vital public funds. This mismanagement and theft penalizes taxpayers by driving up the cost of all government services.”

The grand jury said that lawmakers should add additional criminal penalties for certain crimes such as bid tampering and bribery when they are done by a public official. Legislation last year would have done that, but the bills didn’t get out of committee.

The grand jury also called for criminalization of several corrupt acts that are currently only punished civilly by the state’s ethics code.

The panel took note that lawmakers earlier this year took up bills that would have made certain ethics violations misdemeanors, but didn’t pass them. Another grand jury also has recommended criminalization of those violations.

“We find the concept that certain provisions of the Code of Ethics need to be criminalized is absolute,” the grand jury said. “We find the Legislature should hear the citizens of this state and the grand juries who have now twice called for criminalization of certain violations of the Code of Ethics.”

Lawmakers aren’t very likely to crack down on themselves, the grand jury acknowledged.

“We anticipate great resistance to this recommendation as it potentially holds the legislators who would pass these laws to criminal liability for what previously was only a civil violation,” the panel said. “We hope this will not dissuade the Legislature from acting and urge legislators to work in the interest of the public first and foremost."

Former state Sen. Dan Gelber, a Democrat who pushed for the additional penalties mentioned by the grand jury and other ethics requirements unsuccessfully, was similarly pessimistic.

“The report had some good suggestions, many of which have been introduced in previous legislative sessions,” Gelber said Wednesday. “I suspect the Legislature will decline to aggressively address the issues, especially to the extent reform might impact the workings of the Legislature.”

To improve oversight, the panel called for the creation of an independent State Office of Inspector General, which would be responsible for hiring and firing agency Inspectors General.

The grand jury also recommended that the Commission on Ethics be allowed to initiate its own investigations without having to wait for a complaint to arrive, something members of the panel have sought for a couple years.

It also called for expanding the definition of public officials to include private employees under contract with state agencies or other entities that provide government services, noting that private contractors doing the public’s business can sometimes get around charges for wrongdoing that would be a crime if they worked in government. The grand jury heard from witnesses who testified about private prison guards who accept bribes, for example, but can’t be prosecuted the same way as a guard in a state-run business. A similar situation was mentioned with private home inspectors.

“These are just a few examples of situations in which the term ‘public servant’ has
prohibited criminal prosecution of individuals receiving public funds to perform governmental
services or functions,” the grand jury said. “The time has come for the Legislature to close this appalling loophole.

“All of this is frustrating and absurd,” the grand jury continued. “It is clear that any entity which contracts to perform services for the state must be held accountable for any violation of criminal laws just as any governmental employee.”

For vendors, the panel called for enhancing protections against bid tampering by adding bid rigging schemes specifically into the mix of prohibited offenses.

The grand jury also said the Legislature should eliminate “3-pack” advertising, which
allows expenditures by a political party to advertise jointly for three or more candidates without it being considered a contribution to any candidate, essentially allowing unlimited help for candidates from the parties.

Because the ads often are really just ads for one candidate, and briefly mention the other two to satisfy the law, “we find that this means of advertising is deceptive and is simply a means to skirt the contribution limits,” the grand jury said in recommending their abolition.

The grand jury noted that a study commission recommended toughening ethics laws during the administration of Gov. Jeb Bush, but its recommendations weren’t adopted by the Legislature.

Legislative leaders, noting the massive report was released just at the close of business Wednesday, said they couldn’t comment. Officials in Gov.-elect Rick Scott’s office also didn’t respond to a request for comment.

A spokesman for Crist said the outgoing governor encouraged Scott to give the report a “thorough analysis.”

“The grand jury report provides a much needed blueprint for the incoming administration and the Legislature as they tackle public corruption issues in Florida,” the spokesman, Sterling Ivey, said.

Crist had called for the grand jury in October 2009 following a string of high profile arrests. He noted at the time that he had been forced to remove 33 public officials from office in less than three years as governor because of varying instances of wrongdoing.

A couple of high profile cases preceded the request – though they didn’t involve politicians removed from office. Much of the attention at the Capitol in the year leading up to it was on former House Speaker Ray Sansom, who quit as speaker and later left the Legislature before being charged criminally with theft of taxpayer dollars. He was charged for allegedly steering state money in the budget to a contributor’s project and to a school which later gave him a high-paying job. Sansom continues to fight the charges.

In another high profile case, eye doctor, lobbyist and big time political contributor Alan Mendelsohn was indicted separately in a fund raising scheme about a month before Crist called for the grand jury. At his sentencing in South Florida earlier this month, Mendelsohn gave his own indictment of the state’s political system, saying he was a participant in a widespread culture that required corruption to play. Mendelsohn said he had to essentially pay off at least one legislator to make sure his bills got heard.

Last December, just as the grand jury was getting the go-ahead from the Supreme Court to begin its work, several state senators said they’d been interviewed by federal agents from the FBI and IRS about how the process works at the Capitol, though none would discuss details.

“It is evident to us that sufficient resources are not being dedicated for public corruption law
enforcement, prosecutors, and data management,” the grand jury said.

The panel’s investigation was led by Statewide Prosecutor Bill Shepherd, who is leaving his post. Bondi announced Wednesday that she has appointed Nick Cox to take over for Shepherd in the new year.


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