TALLAHASSEE -- Long before the Legislature saw the need for new ethics laws, Gov. Rick Scott made a bold commitment to fight public corruption.
But he hasn’t followed through.
On his first day in office in 2011, Scott issued an executive order that preserved an Office of Open Government and added a new code of conduct for everyone working for him that in some areas was stricter than state law.
The order also directed Scott’s then-special counsel, Hayden Dempsey, to study a fresh statewide grand jury report on public corruption and push parts of it through the Legislature. But nothing came of it, even though Scott demanded in his campaign in 2010 that he be held accountable for his promises.
“This was a promise of the governor,” said Dan Krassner of Integrity Florida. “Florida needs Gov. Scott’s leadership on ethics reform.”
Two years later, the grand jury’s recommendations on what it called “an enormous issue, which is broad in scope and long in history” are still not law, though parts are in an ethics bill that passed the Senate Tuesday.
That Senate bill leaves out many of the grand jury’s strongest recommendations. They include making it a felony if an officeholder’s unethical conduct is motivated by money; raising the maximum fine for an ethics violation from $10,000 to $100,000; allowing the Commission on Ethics to open investigations without complaints being filed, the same as 30 other states; and clamping down on bid-rigging. The grand jury said public corruption cases are too hard to prove under existing laws and that when they are proven, the penalties are too soft.
Following recent Times/Herald inquiries, Scott directed his general counsel, Peter Antonacci, to look back at why nothing happened.
“I’ve asked Pete to look at that,” Scott said. “Anytime you see corruption around the state, you ought to look at it and say, ‘What can you do to make sure it doesn’t happen again?’ ”
Antonacci said much of what the administration considers necessary is in a just-passed Senate ethics bill, SB 2, awaiting House action. “It’s pretty good, and I’m sure the governor is going to support it,” Antonacci said.
Ethics law expert Mark Herron, a lawyer who has done legal work for the Florida Democratic Party, had another theory for why the grand jury report went nowhere.
“It might have been a little gimmick on Day 1,” Herron said. “I see no legal reason why it would have evaporated.”
Any discussion of changes to state ethics laws in 2011 likely would have included Phil Claypool, who was then executive director of the Commission on Ethics.
“I do not remember any communications with the governor’s office about the grand jury report and its recommendations for changes in the ethics laws,” Claypool said. “That doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen, just that I don’t recall anything like that.”
Scott in effect missed an opportunity to own the anti-corruption issue — and now the Florida Senate largely owns it. Scott may sign an ethics bill that ethics watchdogs consider too weak because it opens gaping new loopholes in laws they say are already too weak.
Krassner, of Integrity Florida, said the Senate bill is a potential “disaster” and that Scott should consider vetoing it because of three major flaws. They include nebulous language involving blind trusts; giving elected officials a 30-day “re-do” to fix mistakes on financial disclosure forms; and a requirement that the Commission on Ethics dismiss complaints if the acts were the result of “inadvertent or unintentional error.”