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Ethics Commissioners Seek Bigger Fines, Greater Enforcement

June 14, 2012 - 6:00pm

Seeking more teeth to enforce its fines, the Florida Commission on Ethics wants state legislators to make things a little harder and potentially more expensive on themselves and other elected officials.

But they are starting an investigation on their own, instead of waiting for a citizen to file a complaint, so it will remain a secondary issue.

The commission, admitting it hasn't had the most success in past legislative sessions, will continue to seek more power to enforce its fine and boost how much it can fine politicians.

You can have great laws, but if you dont have a great enforcement mechanism in the law its not worth anything, said Commissioner Morgan Bentley, an attorney from Sarasota.

Commissioners agreed to seek more enforcement powers for the agency and to boost the top fine from the current $10,000 cap to a maximum of $25,000 in the 2013 legislative session.

Commissioner Edwin Scales, a Key West attorney, said instead of seeking a full plate of changes from the legislators, they should continue to focus on one or two key issues.

Last year, the commission failed to get legislators to provide the agency with more power to collect fines.

He called the board a paper tiger when it comes to enforcement, noting that last year it dismissed $1 million in overdue fines imposed on state and local officials and that it hasn't been able to get meaningful legislation approved in past sessions.

On Friday, the commission also agreed to defer dismissing any additional fines at least for the rest of this year with the hope that it will gain enforcement powers next year.

At the end of the day, these people owe money, said Commissioner Matthew Carlucci, an insurance agent from Jacksonville.

Dan Krassner, Integrity Florida's executive director, appeared hopeful that pressureis mounting from groups such as the various tea party organizations in Florida, as well as the League of Women Voters of Florida, for legislators to make meaningful reform at the commission.

But he would have preferred the commission to also seek the power to initiate its own investigations.

We wanted them to be more bold, Krassner said.

They were down to 169 complaints last year from the public; clearly there is a need to have staff, with commission oversight, to join the 30 other states that initiate investigations.

Commissioners decided not to make self-initiated investigations a key priority, saying they were concerned about the perception they would be judge, jury and executioner.

Earlier this month Integrity, a start-up nonprofit focused on ethics reform, released a report calling Florida the most corrupt state in the nation and pushed for long-sought reforms.

The Integrity report outlines the following areas where the state needs to address its corruption problem:

-- Allow the Florida Commission on Ethics to initiate investigation instead of waiting for a complaint to be filed.

-- Establish a state corruption hotline at the state attorney generals office or the Commission on Ethics.

-- Include private vendors handling state money to be under the state ethics codes.

-- Require top officials to disclose all personal financial transactions -- stock trades, property transactions -- worth more than $1,000.

-- Create an online filing system that can be made public.

-- Mandate Sunshine Law and public records training for all elected officials.

-- Increase the maximum civil penalty for ethics law violations from $10,000 to $25,000.

-- Improve the ability of the state to collection fines by including liens on personal property.

Reach Jim Turner at or at (772) 215-9889.

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