As of Monday, 2,313 public officials still haven’t bothered to file the financial disclosure declarations required by Florida law. The forms were due on July 1.
But look at the bright side: More than 35,000 did file their disclosures — something of a compliance miracle, given that there’s no particular downside to flouting the law.
The Florida Commission on Ethics has the power to fine scofflaws $25 a day, but the famously permissive state law caps the total penalty at a piddling $1,500. Even that figure is an illusion, given that the law doesn’t provide the commission with any real way to collect. In July, the Ethics Commission tallied up previous years’ scofflaws and found 66 public officials still owed $87,199.03 in uncollected fines. The list included an unpaid $1,500 penalty rung up back in 2004 against state Rep. Erik Fresen. He simply ignored the fine until the statute of limitations passed in 2008. Legally, Fresen is home free. No fine. No interest. No ethics.
Last year, former Ethics Commission Chairman Robert J. Sniffen, in something of an understatement, called the commission’s inability to collect fines an “area in critical need of redress.” The commission, Sniffen said, tries to wring money out of violators, “but in cases where the agency is unable to collect the fine and the statute of limitations expires, the Commission is left with no means by which to enforce payment.”
The notion of public officials racking up $87,000 in unpaid fines might amount to a scandal in some states, but that’s just so much chicken feed in Florida, where the state election commission has been unable to collect $1.4 million in fines levied against political candidates, their consultants and their political committees. Again, most of those unpaid fines have been overtaken by a four-year statute of limitations. And lost forever. State accountants simply add the election commission losses and the ethics commission losses to $800 million in unpaid fines, fees, court-ordered payments and unpaid taxes festering on the state’s books.
The state’s failure to collect $800 million in IOUs is plenty bothersome, but it’s downright outrageous that public officials, many of them still on the public payroll, ignore ethics fines the way tourists toss away parking tickets. Attempts to toughen up the ethics law last year faltered in the Legislature, perhaps because Senate President Mike Haridopolos was racking up his own ethics violations. Haridopolos somehow forgot, as he was filing his financial disclosure forms, about certain investments, about a $400,000 home, about a consulting job that paid him $120,000.
But with the ethically challenged Haridopolos gone from the Legislature, Dan Krassner, director of Florida Integrity, predicts that some ethics reform will surely pass in 2013 — including a measure to allow the ethics and elections commissions to garnish wages against violators still on the public payroll, and to file liens against outstanding debtors. Both Gov. Scott and incoming Senate president Don Gaetz have indicated they’ll support a crackdown on our many scofflaws.
“I think the stars are aligned,” Krassner said Monday. “The public is getting tired of corruption.”