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Monday, December 27, 2010

Is Mike Haridopolos' ethical case the exception or the rule in corrupt Tallahassee?; Joe Gibbons continues to skate on ethical black ice re residency



Last Sunday's editorial in the Scripps-owned Treasure Coast & Palm Beach newspaper on ethics in the Florida state legislature in Tallahassee -or rather the lack of same amongst some so-called leaders- could hardly be improved upon.

I had meant to reference it here sooner as it is that rare newspaper editorial that is hammer squarely hitting nail with both precision and a minimum of fuss. And while it was ostensibly about the efforts of Mike Haridopolos to evade the law, it is, of course, apocryphal for all the other members and the culture of corruption that flourishes in that town hard by the Georgia state line.

The longstanding lack of leadership on ethical and clean government issues by the vast majority of Florida state senators and representatives, Democrat and Republican, save an Ellyn Bogdanoff or Ari Porth, is really a leading indicator of the rather pedestrian character and sub-standard quality of the lawmakers in Florida, the country's fourth-largest state.

My seven years back here in Florida, after 15 spent in the Washington, D.C. area, has informed me that, not surprisingly, with size comes not more quality as we might hope, but rather more of the middling mediocrities, male and female, with parochial self-interest as their number one goal, running from hopelessly gerrymandered districts.

Where never is heard a discouraging word.

Who better to be the poster boy for that sorry lot of self-involved, under-achieving ethically-challenged ne'er do-wells than my very own Florida state representative, Joe Gibbons, the former do-nothing Hallandale Beach City Commissioner?


I seriously toyed with the notion of penning an ode to Gibbons in this space on Christmas Day, wondering where-oh-where he was spending the holiday with his wife and kids: where they live and she works, in Jacksonville, or where he, supposedly, lives, Hallandale Beach.

In case you'd forgotten about Joe Gibbons...
April 18, 2010
In case you'd forgotten what sort of person Joe Gibbons was, here's a quick reminder: Y-O-U are at the bottom of his pyramid
http://hallandalebeachblog.blogspot.com/2010/04/in-case-youd-forgotten-what-sort-of.html

November 15, 2010

Do you recall me telling you months ago that FL State Rep. Joe Gibbons no longer lived in HB? Bob Norman hammers some more nails in that coffin!
http://hallandalebeachblog.blogspot.com/2010/11/do-you-recall-me-telling-you-months-ago.html

November 15, 2010

Bob Norman in The Daily Pulp blog
House Pro Tem Investigated for Homestead Fraud
http://blogs.browardpalmbeach.com/pulp/2010/11/joe_gibbons_investigated_homestead_fraud.php


But as indignant as I was, given the facts we already know with certainty,
I didn't want to be cross in the blog on Christmas Day, and waste precious time and energy on someone whom I have so very little regard for, and who in another time and place would already be receiving calls from leaders in this community to either come clean on whether Gibbons actually lived where he claimed to live on his formal candidacy papers, as required by state law, or resign.

Instead, Gibbons continues to skate on thin black ice and the South Florida news media, save Bob Norman, continue to avert their eyes from what is right in front of them.


Why is everyone down here so deathly afraid of not only real competitive general elections, where issues matter, but in calling out politicians who have the gall and effrontery to actually fail the very low threshold that the state currently requires?

That quorum of mediocrity is why those FL state amendments that passed muster with the public in November, which made creating gerrymandered districts harder to draw in the future by these same ethically-conflicted legislators, a very important victory indeed.

Success that needs to be built upon in future elections and replicated at the local level.


Given the rather brazen and egregious acts and forms of self-dealing that seem to routinely go on in Tallahassee, often drawing nothing but blank stares, it's no wonder really that the vast majority of Sunshine State citizens regard every state legislator and staffer in Tallahassee as someone potentially on the make, with his or her hand extended waiting for a 'sweetener,' the only question being the amount.

This is made worse by their ridiculous high self-regard, and the outrageous sense of entitlement they possess, as if they were our betters, which they are not.

Sadly, this same unethical and anti-democratic sentiment is mirrored in most of the state's 67 county commissions, and many of their cities.

As if this was not enough of a burden for this state's citizenry to bear, it's made worse when some pols who were formerly thought to be on the right side of this ethical line-in-the-sand, begin to make noises and whine quite loudly amongst their friends in the chattering class and news media about the indignities they must bear when they are forbidden from so much as even taking a Mentos from a friend.
More on her and her new suffering soon.

-----
http://www.tcpalm.com/news/2010/dec/19/editorial-haridopolos-financial-disclosure-case/
Editorial
Haridopolos' financial disclosure case illustrates need to reform flawed system
Editorial board
December 19, 2010


The coziness of it all makes the conscientious person want to scream.


Sadly, no one in the halls of power — in this case, the Florida Legislature — appears to be listening.


To wit, the complaint against Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, was heard recently by the state Commission on Ethics.

Haridopolos had stated in an October news release: "I acknowledge mistakes made on my financial disclosure form from past years. None of these were intentional and once pointed out, I corrected the mistakes. I have filed amended disclosure forms with the necessary corrections."


These omissions amounted to tens of thousands of dollars in income and personal property Haridopolos failed to report on financial disclosure forms from 2004 to 2008.


The ethics commission heard the complaint but took no action other than to refer the complaint to the Senate Rules Committee — this, in large part, because the commission has no authority to impose penalties. This can only be done by lawmakers. But guess what. The Senate Rules Committee is chaired by Sen. John Thrasher, R-Jacksonsville — a Haridopolos appointee!

So which of the committee's options — do nothing, or recommend to the full Senate that Haridopolos be reprimanded or fined — do you think is forthcoming?

One thing is clear: The system currently in place to require financial disclosure by public officials, and to investigate and penalize alleged violations, is a joke.

What needs to change?


• Require public officials to type the information on their financial disclosure forms.
Some forms completed by candidates and elected officials are handwritten and barely legible. The public shouldn't be left to guess at the meaning behind letters and words that are difficult, even impossible, to decipher.

• Provide basic instructions and guidelines for completing the forms properly. Explain to lawmakers what assets and liabilities are.
For example, Haridopolos, who listed a $325,000 home as both an asset and a liability on his financial disclosure forms two years in a row, should know the outstanding mortgage on the home — not the home itself — is the liability. A simple explainer on the form might help.

• Require public officials to post all financial disclosure forms online.
Now, to obtain a copy of a public official's financial disclosure form, the public must e-mail a request to the Florida Commission on Ethics (disclosure@leg.state.fl.us). The public deserves immediate, online access to these forms. Haridiopolos has championed putting the state budget online. The Legislature should do the same with financial disclosure statements. Even better, create a Web-based form that lawmakers have to fill out online. This would give them fewer excuses when they make errors.

• Give the ethics commission authority to impose penalties.
Deferring this step to the Legislature makes a mockery of such investigations.

• Eliminate inconsistencies in Florida's financial disclosure laws. For example, state law contains the following catch-all provision: "A person may amend his or her full and public disclosure of financial interests to add to or modify the information reported on the form as originally filed at any time after filing the disclosure form." There is no accountability when a statute allows a public official to amend a filing "at any time."

• Make it a crime for a public official to knowingly fail to disclose a financial interest in legislation he or she votes for.
While this isn't the case in the Haridopolos complaint, it remains an issue that merits prompt legislative action. Not surprisingly, a bill that would have made it a crime for lawmakers to knowingly fail to disclose a financial interest in legislation they vote for was rejected by the 2010 Legislature.

The solutions needed to reform Florida's feeble financial disclosure system are transparent. However, fixing the problem requires honest evaluation and self-scrutiny by the Legislature — and these qualities are in short supply in Tallahassee.

----

More TCPalm opinon pieces at:
http://www.tcpalm.com/news/opinion/

------


A few days earlier, The Florida Times-Union, based out of Jacksonville, published this spot-on editorial
on the same subject.

http://jacksonville.com/opinion/editorials/2010-12-12/story/legislature-shoring-ethics

Legislature: Shoring up ethics
December 12, 2010 - 12:00am

NICE DEAL ... FOR THEM


- In most situations involving ethics violations in state and local government, the state ethics commission investigates and makes recommendations on penalties. The governor decides on the penalties.


- In the case of violations by state lawmakers, however, the ethics commission investigates, but it is ultimately state lawmakers who decide the penalties of their colleagues. The ethics commission is not allowed to even recommend penalties unless lawmakers ask them to do it.


Our take:
The Legislature shouldn't be deciding ethics penalties for its own members after commission investigations. Those conflicts and others could be avoided if penalties for lawmakers were up to the governor or a combination of the governor and state Cabinet.


The ethics case involving Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos exposes a flaw in the ethics system that lawmakers should fix.


The fox's friends are guarding the henhouse.


It surfaced after Haridopolos admitted he failed to fully note details about property owned and business ties he was supposed to list on his required financial disclosure form, which applies to elected local and state officials at all levels of Florida government.

The disclosures are important because they can help the public spot potential conflicts of interest.

They are safeguards against corruption that help enhance public confidence - provided officials share the details as required.


A Vero Beach man filed a complaint with the Florida Commission on Ethics alleging Haridopolos didn't comply. The omissions included a $400,000 investment home in Mount Dora and the names of two clients who paid him more than $120,000 over a five-year-period.


Haridopolos acknowledged the mistakes to commission investigators and then filed amended disclosures.


The ethics commission accepted the investigation findings but has no legal ability to recommend a penalty to the state Legislature unless lawmakers ask.

So, by law, the matter went to the Senate Rules Committee for consideration.

It could do nothing or recommend a fine or reprimand to the full Senate for action.
And that spotlights a big defect in the system.

As Senate president, Haridopolos is the guy who appoints the committees and their chairmen.

The henhouse effect


In this case, the committee chairman is Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, most recently the head of the Republican Party of Florida and a key Haridopolos ally and friend.

But the ally part would be true of just about anybody Haridopolos would appoint to the committee.


Plus, the committee is now asked to weigh in on an ethics case involving someone who can - at whim - kill any future piece of legislation the members might offer.

In other words, going against the boss in this case is yanking hard on Superman's cape.


Haridopolos' attorney argues that embarrassment is enough of a penalty for his client, especially since Haridopolos admitted the mistakes and moved quickly to correct them.


But that misses the broader point.

A conflict of interest should not be built into the system, but that is the case in the Legislature.


An ethics enforcement system needs the ability to enforce independently and should be beyond the direct influence of anyone who is subject to a decision, whether it be the Senate president or a newly elected state lawmaker who has yet to find the restroom.


In fact, that's the way it works in most cases in state government.

For instance, the governor gets details from the ethics commission about problems with a sheriff and then decides, within the options outlined by law, what will happen - not a committee appointed by the sheriff.

Distance equals credibility
If the complaint came in against the governor and the governor was in clear violation, the attorney general would ultimately decide what would happen, not some group the governor appointed that he could leverage or that depended on him for future success.

The governor would make the call on ethics penalties in most cases for the agriculture commissioner, attorney general or chief financial officer.

But state lawmakers get the privilege of deciding what will happen to their own - if anything at all.

Where's the impartiality?

It's like exempting themselves from full application of Florida's Government in the Sunshine Law.


Worse yet, the ethics commission - unlike with complaints against state and local constitutional officers - is barred by law from even recommending ethics penalties to lawmakers involving state lawmaker violations, unless state lawmakers request it.


In other words, the ethics commission is told, if lawmakers want your suggestions on penalties, they'll ask for them.

Adjustments needed


It's rare, though not impossible, for there to be an ethics finding by the commission against a Senate president or other legislative leader.

But infrequency is no reason to avoid upgrading the system.


The ethics commission should be able to recommend penalties about lawmaker violations like they can for everyone else.

But they should be directed to the governor or the state Cabinet for penalty consideration, not lawmakers themselves.


Should lawmakers be able to legally change that process by themselves, they should do it.


If, for some reason, it should require a state constitutional amendment, lawmakers should propose one.


If they won't, shame on them.


Then various citizens groups that advocate for strong ethics and more transparency in government should band together and seek a constitutional amendment as part of a broader move to strengthen the state ethics commission in general.


Having the foxes guard the henhouse never worked on the farm, and it isn't good for state government, either.

-----


Because I have the
Florida Commission on Ethics as a daily Google Alert, I not only saw these editorials the day they came out, but also caught an excellent Dec. 17, 2010 Letter to the Editor of Florida Today, the Gannett-owned newspaper in Melbourne, FL, i.e. the Daytona Beach area for those of you reading this from out-of-state, on the sort of character of the attorney hired by incoming Florida State Senate President Mike Haridopolos when the evidence was overwhelmingly against him.
A petty one!

http://www.floridatoday.com/article/20101217/OPINION/101216030/1004/

Attorney’s comments were unprofessional

Attorney Pete Dunbar, who represented state Sen. Mike Haridopolos in a hearing earlier this month before the Florida Commission on Ethics, made inappropriate and caustic comments against Eugene Benson, a citizen who first noted Haridopolos had failed to report key financial information for the past five years.

Dunbar’s remarks leaves a sad mark on the legal profession.


Even though Haridopolos quickly admitted guilt, somehow Dunbar felt the only way to represent his client was to imply that Benson was the problem by stating, among other things, “Basically, what you’ve got here is a harassing complaint.”

Several other negative comments were also made by Dunbar.


Is this what our legal profession has sunk to, that even if your client admits guilt, someone else should be blamed?


Alan Zoellner

Merritt Island

See, people really are paying attention to what is going on in the Sunshine State.

Meanwhile. days earlier...

Miami Herald

http://www.miamiherald.com/2010/12/04/1956721/senate-chiefs-mistakes-remain.html

Senate chief's mistakes remain an issue
By Marc Caputo Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos admitted he made an "embarrassing'' mistake when he repeatedly failed to properly fill out financial disclosure forms.


On Friday, the Florida Commission on Ethics accepted Haridopolos' formal admission that he violated the state Constitution by neglecting to detail his investments, a $400,000 home and a consulting job that earned him $120,000 from 2004 through 2008.


But Haridopolos wasn't fined Friday. The commission can't do that under constitutional rules.
That job is up to Haridopolos' fellow senators. And they might not fine him at all.


Haridopolos' attorney, Pete Dunbar, said they shouldn't make him pay any more because the errors were minimal, unintentional and were corrected as soon as Haridopolos learned of them.


"
He has paid enough. This is deeply embarrassing,'' Dunbar said Friday after the commission approved Haridopolos' acknowledgement of guilt. "This was a clerical error.''

But it's not going away.


Regardless of what penalty -- if any -- Haridopolos' Senate levies against its boss, the issue is sure to haunt him on the campaign trail.


POSSIBLE RUN


Haridopolos is already putting out feelers for a possible 2012 run for the U.S. Senate against Democrat Bill Nelson, putting the Merritt Island Republican on a crash course with fellow Republican U.S. Sen. George LeMieux. LeMieux's deputy staff chief, Vivian Myrtetus, sent out an electronic Twitter message Friday that linked to a blog with the headline, "Haridopolos guilty in ethics violation.''


Democrats also pounced. Shortly after the commission approved Haridopolos' settlement agreement, the Florida Democratic Party sent out a press release with the headline "Haridopolos Kicks Off 2012 Senate Campaign By Pleading Guilty To Breaking Ethics Laws.''


The ethics case against Haridopolos was brought by a sharp-eyed retiree, Vero Beach resident Eugene H. "Bucky'' Benson, who noticed that Haridopolos failed to write the addresses of his employers, the Legislature and the University of Florida. Benson also spotted discrepancies in the way Haridopolos reported income through MJH Consulting Company, which performed work for a public-relations firm called Syntax Communication and the marketing arm of an appliance company, Appliance Direct.


'BIGGEST FARCE'


In an e-mail to reporters, Benson groused that the ethics commission was "the biggest farce in the world. . . . The Florida Legislature snookered Florida taxpayers into thinking that it governs `in the sunshine' and the Ethics Commission is the taxpayer's watchdog.''

But Haridopolos said he's committed to transparency and open government, which he said is what mortified him about his mistakes. Also, he noted to ethics investigators, he's a college teacher and should've filled out the annual financial disclosure forms properly. He said that after he improperly filled out the forms in a matter of minutes the first time, he repeated his errors year after year.

"
I thought I did it correctly,'' he told reporters last month. "I turned in the paper. No one turned it back with a red mark on it saying you did this wrong. And so for 10 years, I thought I did this right. My wife's not happy with me. My newspaper's not happy with me. And I'm not happy with me. It was a mistake.''

Other Florida stories at:

http://www.miamiherald.com/news/florida/index.html

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