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Jax Daily Record Thursday, Jun. 7, 201212:00 PM EST

Watchdog group: Florida 'most corrupt' state

by: Michael Peltier

Florida may be the nation’s fourth most populous state, but it leads the nation in the number of federal corruption convictions, a dubious honor that could be easily remedied, a government watchdog group said Wednesday.

Based on U.S. Department of Justice data, Florida led the nation in the number of convictions between 2000 and 2010, according to data compiled by Integrity Florida, a nonprofit research group founded earlier this year by former Florida Chamber spokesman Dan Krasner and former Common Cause Florida Executive Director Ben Wilcox.

“We’re No. 1 for our beaches,” Krasner said. “We’re No. 1 for our sunshine, but it’s time we dust off our government-in-the-sunshine laws and once again become No. 1 in the world for government in the sunshine and open government.”

The data, which include only federally initiated cases, show Florida had 781 convictions for corruption charges for the 10-year period ending in 2010.

Florida was followed by California (753), Texas (741) and New York (670.)

Most of the federal corruption cases involve local officials, who by sheer numbers represent the largest segment of public officials.

Integrity Florida outlined changes that could be done within existing law while also calling on state lawmakers to make some changes in state statutes to toughen anti-corruption laws.

Florida law does not allow the Commission on Ethics to initiate investigations, a restriction groups like Common Cause and others have tried unsuccessfully to change for years.

Last year, the commission acted on 169 complaints deemed to be valid. The group said even high-profile cases are out of reach unless someone files a formal complaint.

“It’s like having speeding limits but no officers on the beat to catch speeders when they break the law,” Krasner said.

The Ethics Commission plans to meet next week to map out its 2013 Legislative agenda.

Among a list of recommendations, Integrity Florida said state lawmakers should give the commission more police powers while also raising the cap on allowable fines from $10,000 to $25,000.

The commission itself previously has asked for such powers, suggesting it be allowed to initiate cases. Two years ago the commission also asked for a higher fine limit of $100,000.

Also in 2010, a statewide grand jury slammed Florida laws for being too lax on corruption, and made a number of suggestions, most of which were never implemented.

Then-Gov. Charlie Crist called for that grand jury investigation in 2009 following a string of high-profile arrests of public officials and political figures.

He noted at the time that he had been forced to remove 33 public officials from office in less than three years as governor because of varying instances of wrongdoing.

Integrity Florida also is calling on lawmakers to expand the scope of state ethics laws to include private vendors who benefit from their relationships with public officials. Krasner said current law addresses only one side of the transaction.

Other recommendations include garnishing wages from public employees who are fined and putting financial disclosures, commission findings and investigations online.

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