Fox in the Henhouse

Jul 5, 2012 by

Last week I spent almost four hours gathering personal information to properly fill out my financial disclosure form. I’m happy to do this because I strongly believe the public has a right to know if those who spend your tax dollars have the potential for personal financial gain and whether their actions have led to such gains.

Every July, every elected official in Florida must fill out the form. It asks our net worth, what properties and stocks we own, and any mortgages or debts we hold. It also asks our sources of income and those we do business with. It’s believed that making elected officials disclose their assets and liabilities — along with their main sources of income and those they do business with — will help the public and the media gauge whether there is unethical behavior or personal financial benefit.

With the Legislature controlling a budget that grew from $42 billion in 1997 to $70 billion this year, there is plenty of opportunity for financial gamesmanship. The Legislature hands out lucrative contracts to thousands of businesses and organizations every year. A phrase you often hear when questioning the motives behind a piece of legislation is “just follow the money.” So it makes sense to look at the financial activity of decision-makers who are, after all, part-time legislators.

For sadly, a 2010 grand jury found more than 800 public officials in Florida had been convicted on public corruption charges over the prior 10 years, the most nationwide. And a recent report by Integrity Florida shows our state continues to rank first in public corruption.

But the goal of requiring financial disclosure, while laudable, may not be achieving its desired result for a variety of reasons.

The primary shortcoming is that the forms are not easily accessible. What good does it do to require disclosure if nobody can see the forms? I have, over the years, requested a few financial disclosure forms when I suspected cozy relationships, but those requests are awkward, cumbersome and time-consuming. The lack of easy access also prevents an in-depth look into patterns and cross-referencing from year to year.

Another problem is the relevance of the information requested. While a snapshot of a legislator’s financial picture might be interesting, it is not as instructive as a full accounting of their business relationships. More emphasis should be given those with whom they do business, and to what extent those businesses seek state tax dollars.

As an example of how the disclosure forms are used, take a look at how the media treats the information. The coverage more closely resembles a National Enquirer story than an investigative report into links between policy supported by legislators and their financial ties.

After last year’s disclosure forms were filed, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune ran a story titled “Financial disclosures show Legislature is a millionaires’ club.” It begins: “The Florida Legislature is home to more than 50 millionaires – including five from Southwest Florida – according to a News Service of Florida analysis of financial disclosure forms. Lawmakers are required to report their income and net worth once a year.”

Really? An analysis? How about “who stands to gain by an aggressive move to privatize half the state’s prisons?” That would require an analysis.

The story went on to name the richest and poorest legislator in each chamber and what neighborhoods their expensive homes were in, not exactly the goal for requiring disclosure. But I guess enquiring minds want to know.

The real failure lies in the lack of true accountability and enforcement. Even if the forms were accessible, how does the public know the information is complete and accurate? The Florida Commission on Ethics, which receives the forms, regularly makes recommendations for improvements to the Legislature. But so far, a majority of lawmakers have not wanted to give the ethics commission the teeth needed to strengthen or enforce the law that governs those who govern.

In probably the most high-profile case of disregarding disclosure, Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos last year admitted he had made mistakes in five years of financial disclosure forms. For omitting more than a half-a-million dollars in assets on his form, the Senate’s highest officer received less than a slap on the hand.

The issue came to light after a tea party activist filed an ethics complaint against Haridopolos for failing to disclose several large items, including income from his personal consulting firm, his list of clients and a home valued at $400,000. Since the Ethics Commission cannot dole out penalties, the Senate president’s “punishment” was decided by a close friend he had appointed to chair the Senate Rules Committee.

How did Sen. Haridopolos miss more than a half-million dollars in assets? He admitted: “I feel pretty silly…I mean, I’m a college professor and I didn’t do it right.”

So what needs to be done to ensure the financial disclosure requirement has real benefit to taxpayers and media watchdogs? The answer is simple: post the completed financial-disclosure forms online, restructure the forms to better solicit the information that matters, add meaningful fines or penalties to encourage honest and full disclosure, and empower the ethics commission to initiate, investigate and adjudicate matters pertaining to financial disclosure.

In short, let’s get the fox out of the henhouse.

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