Florida Senate in a hurry on ethics reform
With Senate President Don Gaetz making the issue a top priority, a Senate committee Tuesday began quickly moving to pass a broad cleanup of the state's ethics laws for public officials.
Sen. Jack Latvala (R-St. Peterburg), chairman of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, said he expects an ethics bill to arrive to the full Senate during the first week of the 2013 legislative session in March.
After the committee spent about three hours discussing potential changes to the laws, Latvala said a bill would be introduced Friday and that the panel would take it up next week.
"This comes from the top down in the Senate," Latvala, said.
The bill appears likely to deal with a series of issues, such as stiffening the penalties for officials who do not file financial-disclosure forms, reining in lawmakers' use of political committees to pay for meals and other personal expenses, cracking down on voting conflicts of interest and curbing what Latvala described as a "revolving door" between the Legislature and the lobbying industry.
The committee agreed with some suggestions by the state Commission on Ethics, which has grappled with problems such as having to write off hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid fines levied against officials who do not file disclosure forms. The Senate bill is expected to include allowing liens to be placed against property owned by people who do not pay the fines.
Similarly, the bill likely will give the ethics commission the power to undertake investigations after receiving referrals from the governor's office, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, state attorneys or federal prosecutors.
Matt Carlucci, an ethics commission member from Jacksonville who has worked on the proposals, said those agencies sometimes deal with cases that are not criminal but include potential ethical violations.
The Senate panel, however, appears ready to go beyond the ethics commission's suggestions.
For example, Latvala said he wants to prevent lawmakers from using a type of political committee known as a "committee of continuing existence" to pay personal expenses that are not related to committee business.
Latvala said lawmakers have inappropriately used the committees to pay for such expenses as meals and have not properly reported expenditures. He said he did not want to limit lawmakers' ability to use the committees for legitimate expenses, such as traveling to raise money.
Sen. Tom Lee (R-Brandon) said the committees should not pay for improper expenses such as meals. But he also said there will always be a "gray area" between those types of expenditures and legitimate costs of doing business.
"This is quicksand, I can just tell you,'' said Lee, who as Senate president pushed through a controversial ban on lawmakers accepting meals and gifts from lobbyists.
Another potential change would increase restrictions on lawmakers who join lobbying firms after leaving office. Currently, former lawmakers are not allowed to lobby the Legislature for two years after they leave, but they can lobby executive-branch agencies or work in other roles for lobbying firms.
In the most-recent example, former House Speaker Dean Cannon (R-Winter Park) set up a firm that includes his predecessor in the speaker's office, Larry Cretul. Cannon finished his stint as speaker in November, meaning he will not be able to lobby the Legislature until 2014.
Among the possible changes in the law could be to ban former members from lobbying executive branch agencies for two years after they leave office or to prevent them from associating with lobbying firms for two years.
The bill also appears likely to include a ban on state officials voting on matters that could financially benefit them. Currently, for instance, senators can vote on such issues but have to disclose their conflicts.
Latvala said he also wants to make sure the prohibition applies to people who serve on other types of agencies, such as expressway authorities.
Sen. Jeff Clemens (D-Lake Worth) said he thinks the bill needs to also prohibit voting conflicts that could benefit officials' spouses or employers.
"To me, that is huge hole here,'' Clemens said.
Latvala quickly quipped: "That's easy for a single guy to say."