On Spotting Corruption, Who to Call?

Aug 9, 2012 by

During my time in the Florida Legislature, I have taken on a few issues that led to the discovery of state activities that were questionable at a minimum, and more likely unethical or illegal.

In politics, it is easier and more rewarding to “go along to get along.” People who seek the truth and continue digging or asking questions are “troublemakers,” while those who turn their heads the other way or ignore warning signs are “team players.”

My favorite saying that I try to put into practice is “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” But in researching issues such as SunRail, prison privatization and numerous special-interest projects, I have smacked into the wall of silence at several state agencies.

Rank-and-file employees are expected to refer questions to public information officers, who seem trained to avoid real answers. Even extreme measures, such as public-record requests, are answered with data dumps of mostly incomprehensible reams of paper.

A consequence of my public battles is that some state employees have contacted me to provide information or confirm “that you are on the right track, keep asking questions.” Not only have I been contacted by employees or ex-employees of the agency I was currently researching, but from other agencies or departments with which I had little interaction.

Their willingness to step up and do the right thing to expose potential corruption, unethical behavior and patronage is admirable. They speak of hostile work environments, subtle threats, cozy relationships and widespread distrust. It saddens me to know they face the very real dilemma of whether to keep quiet and keep their job, or speak out and risk getting kicked out. Not much of a choice.

It must be awful to know of things going on in state government that should be stopped or exposed, but feel frightened and powerless to do so. Who can they tell? Who can they trust? Will it matter anyway?

If acted upon, their tips could lead to eliminating bad apples, opening competition to all vendors and saving taxpayer dollars. There should be incentives for employees to speak up when they see inappropriate behavior, lest it become the prevailing culture in which they are expected to participate. It is usually at this point that they quit or reach out to someone. Shouldn’t there be someone for them to reach out to without fear or reprisal?

Within every state agency, there is an inspector general who is supposed to root out corruption and fraud, and ensure tax dollars are spent wisely. If this system were working properly, employees would have a viable mechanism for reporting abuse. However, a 2009 Florida Trend report found several inspectors who were fired or asked to resign by agency bosses who didn’t appreciate the independent oversight.

Inspectors at the Department of Corrections, Agency for Health Care Administration and Florida Department of Transportation were among them. The DOC inspector was fired for investigating a friend of the agency’s secretary. Today both the secretary and his friend are in prison for accepting kickbacks. At FDOT, the well-respected inspector general was asked to resign for having taken cases to law enforcement. Apparently, the agency’s legal staff feared what people might think.

In other words, it’s OK if corruption exists, let’s just make sure no one finds out about it.

Such retribution flies in the face of the purpose for inspectors general. The major problem is that they aren’t independent and can be fired at the whim of agency secretaries who don’t want dirty laundry aired.

Several Florida agencies sign contracts that spend billions of taxpayer dollars. With Florida leading the nation in public corruption, this situation should be taken seriously.

For the past two years, I sponsored a bill — based on recommendations from the 2010 Grand Jury Report on Public Corruption — to restore public integrity and regain the public trust. The bill sought to give greater independence to the inspectors general, more authority to the Chief Inspector General and financial rewards to employees who provide information that results in the recovery of funds.

As with most ethics-reform legislation, the bills went nowhere fast. Perhaps with Integrity Florida leading the charge for true and meaningful reform, we might see positive results.

In the meantime, employees morally opposed to what is happening in their agencies don’t know where to turn. While I’m flattered they feel I am someone who can “shed some light” on the situation, there is only so much I can do in my last few months as a legislator. We need to address this gap from many fronts.

Agency workers need a hotline to report tips so that reporters, law enforcement and the ethics commission could further investigate. The Ethics Commission needs the authority to initiate investigations and the teeth to do something with the results. The governor’s new chief of staff can change the culture with an open-door policy and by removing the toxic cronyism.

There are many honorable people who work for the state who shouldn’t be painted with the same brush as the bad actors. We need to separate the good from the bad and not place honest workers in the position of participating in questionable behavior by following the orders of their bosses. Those who misuse their power should be rightfully held accountable.

Standing up to corruption and good-old-boy politics deserves to be encouraged and rewarded. No one else should lose their job for doing the right thing.

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