The devil is always in the details. Two weeks after the Florida Senate earned accolades for its unanimous vote on ethics reform, the bill's fine print is getting the scrutiny it deserves thanks to a former ethics commission executive director. Now it's up to the Florida House to improve the ethics reform package by tightening up several Senate provisions that could make it harder instead of easier for the public to keep tabs on those conducting the business of government. Meaningful ethics reform requires getting all the details right, not just some of them.
The House Ethics and Elections Committee starts deliberations today on the House legislation — just a day after Philip Claypool, the former executive director of the state ethics commission, critiqued the Senate legislation at the request of Integrity Florida. Among the areas ripe for improvement in the House:
Financial disclosure requirements
Lawmakers want to make it easier for officials to correct the paperwork they must file annually without consequence. But the danger is in undermining the importance of financial disclosure for the convenience of politicians, particularly when this provision could mean a corrected form isn't submitted until after an election. The citizens' right to know the financial interests of those seeking or holding office is not a nuisance requirement, and the ethics commission already distinguishes between honest mistakes and more nefarious kinds.
ConflictS of Interest
Legislators can now vote on any matter, but they have to disclose afterward if they or a close associate, including a family member, would get a special private gain or loss. Under the Senate and House bills, lawmakers could not vote on issues where they had a special interest — but could vote if their close associate did. In those cases, the legislator would still disclose a conflict after voting. And the Senate bill contains suspect language that appears to narrow the definition of special gain or loss. The goal should be to improve public disclosure, not give lawmakers more cover when they vote for their self-interest, big and small.
Both chambers would make it harder for citizens to file complaints in the run-up to an election. And the Senate would impose new standards when a complaint must be dismissed by the commission. This would make matters worse, and Florida doesn't have a problem with over-prosecution on ethics violations.
For the first time, both chambers appear poised to embrace the ethics commission's idea to allow politicians to avoid conflict of interest laws by establishing blind trusts for their assets. But the House version comes much closer to getting it right by requiring that officials document what assets are placed in a trust initially and requiring the trust agreement be filed with the ethics commission. The Senate's bill does neither of those necessary things and risks leaving citizens more in the dark about a politicians' interests than they are now.