Op-Ed

Florida — the den of corruption

Indicted U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, made a concession speech Tuesday after losing a reelection bid in the primary.
Indicted U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, made a concession speech Tuesday after losing a reelection bid in the primary. AP

You would think if you were an ambitious federal prosecutor eager to pursue public corruption cases, you would yearn to be assigned to an office in Florida — any office — where the pickings are riper than a Plant City strawberry field.

So many greased palms. So few scruples.

After all, the official state motto really ought to be: “You Have the Right to Remain Silent.”

When it comes to all manner of measures like the quality of education, or transportation, or medical care for the poor, Florida often ranks somewhere between Dante’s Inferno and Palau.

However, Florida also stands proudly in leading the nation for stuff like pedestrian deaths, indifference to climate change even while Miami floods and a penal system right out of “Papillon.” Only a few weeks ago, the Florida Environmental Regulation Commission approved new rules that allow higher levels of toxins and carcinogens into the state’s water supply. Hmmmm, hmmmm, that’s some tasty cancer.

But nowhere does Florida stand more proudly than in the production of political mug shots.

Last year, Harvard Law School’s Edmund J. Safra Center for Ethics released a report proclaiming Florida to be No. 1 — with a plea deal — for both legal and illegal public corruption.

The New York Times noted a few years ago that between 1998 and 2007, 823 public officials in Florida were convicted on corruption charges at the state, local or federal level, proving perhaps than an idle soul is indeed the devil’s playground.

And the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity has given Florida a grade of D for its lack of governmental honesty. Who got an F? There’s always Somalia, something for Florida to aspire to achieve.

What would you expect from a state that is led by Gov. Rick Scott, who once invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination 75 times during a deposition in a civil lawsuit? And he was still elected to a second term, suggesting perhaps that gullible Floridians aren’t all that picky about who gets to reside in the Governor’s Mansion.

The wrongdoing, of course, takes many forms — from outright bribery to the pernicious influence of lobbyists to the murky financing of political action committees.

And that explains why former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham made a very bipartisan appeal to then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in 2013 to beef up the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Florida to provide more money and lawyers to take on public corruption cases. Alas, Graham’s request was met with a cone of silence. Given Graham’s stature, Holder’s failure to even respond was beyond dense. It was rude.

And that had to be particularly galling for Graham, who served in the Florida Legislature, two terms as governor and three terms in the U.S. Senate while managing to emerge with his reputation intact.

Holder is long gone. And now Graham has made the same request of his successor, Attorney General Loretta Lynch. But time is running short as the Obama administration draws to a close. And with Lynch already under fire for her decision not to pursue potential naughtiness at the Clinton Foundation or Hillary Clinton’s email-server imbroglio, it’s rather doubtful the attorney general is going to get all lathered up over some Florida politician using a bale of marijuana as a paperweight.

Still, it is not as if the Justice Department has been entirely oblivious to politicians behaving sadly.

In July, the feds indicted U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, and her chief of staff on 24 counts of fraud. The pair are accused of steering $800,000 in dubious contributions to a fake educational charity, One Door, using the money as a personal slush fund for swanky vacations to the Bahamas, Beyoncé concerts, football games and chi-chi parties.

Meanwhile, One Door, which apparently swung only one way, gave out only two $1,200 scholarships.

Voters were not amused. Brown lost in the Democratic primary Tuesday.

But what about Graham’s more overarching concerns that Florida remains a den of baksheesh?

Daniel Ruth is a Tampa Bay Times columnist.

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