Integrity Florida, a Welcome New Crusader for Ethics Reform

Apr 12, 2012 by

As my last session in the Florida Senate came to a close, I hoped against hope that the Florida Legislature would finally get serious about meaningful ethics reform.

For five years, I’d tried to pass a bill that would ban lawmakers from sponsoring, voting or lobbying for items that would financially benefit themselves or a family member. But despite a grand jury’s call for ethics reform and public perception of elected officials at an all-time low, it was clear the Senate’s leadership had no desire to address conflicts of interest.

Florida, so you know, led the country in federal public corruption convictions from 2000-2010, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Since 1976, nearly 1,800 people have been convicted of public corruption in Florida’s federal courts. That’s an average of 49 public corruption convictions a year, or about one a week for 35 years.

Public corruption is the reason Forbes magazine ranked several Florida cities on its list of America’s Most Miserable Cities. And a recent report by the Center for Public Integrity gave Florida a C-minus for corruption risk, as well as failing marks for enforcing ethics in government.

The demand for ethical behavior must come from the voters, who need to be educated and engaged about the influence of money in politics. So it’s good news that a new organization, called Integrity Florida, has formed to shine a light on the problem of public corruption.

Integrity Florida is a nonpartisan, nonprofit research institute whose mission is to promote integrity in government and expose public corruption. Upcoming research reports will focus on state and local ethics violations, campaign finance revelations and government transparency issues.

Leading the organization is Dan Krassner, who is no stranger to the intersection of money and politics, having served in senior management positions with the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Florida TaxWatch.

Dan shares my concern about the legislature refusing to adopt conflict-of -interest rules that prevent lawmakers from personally benefitting from their votes. He points out that legislators may receive income from lobbying firms, yet they only have to declare the conflict within 14 days of their vote. Integrity Florida wants state government to operate with at least the same level of integrity and transparency as local governments, which operate under much stronger conflict-of-interest rules.

One of the organization’s board members, Marty Rogol, led Palm Beach County’s ethics reform initiative in 2010. Today, Palm Beach has an ethics commission that has the power to launch an investigation, something the Florida Ethics Commission cannot do, absent a citizen’s complaint. Palm Beach also has an independent inspector general whose office has a secure funding source. And it has a local ethics code stronger than what is expected of state officials.

Ben Wilcox, who formerly led Common Cause in Florida, has joined Integrity Florida as research director because he believes we need an ethics watchdog. “Surveys of corruption in the states have all indicated Florida’s at the top of the list.” It’s an economic development issue, he adds. After all, what business wants to do business in a state known for public corruption?

The group’s strategy for accomplishing statewide reform starts with a grassroots, local-level approach. The organization has engaged Tea Party chapters, the League of Women Voters and other civic groups as partners willing to take its research and policy recommendations to their local governments. By addressing government integrity at a local level, the organization hopes to inspire a statewide movement.

Rather than accept the reality that elected officials will use their positions to benefit themselves and well-connected friends, we, the people, must now try to change the mindset from the outside.

Since no high-ranking elected official is willing to carry the banner, Integrity Florida is best positioned to get the grassroots effort started.

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