The Statewide Grand Jury on Public Corruption released its first report (.pdf) late Wednesday, urging lawmakers preparing for the upcoming legislative session to consider a number of measures that could curtail corruption deemed “pervasive at all levels of government” and hold accountable those public officials who “flagrantly abuse their positions,” yet escape reprimand.
The 127-page report stresses the need for harsher criminal penalties for those who “seek to steal, waste, and abuse our taxpayer money,” outlining a list of reforms that include redefining the term “public servant” to include private contractors fulfilling government contracts, the creation of an independent Office of State Inspector General to monitor stage agencies and instituting stricter rules requiring elected officials to abstain from voting on issues with which they have potential conflicts of interest.
“Better efforts to prevent and penalize corruption are necessary in order to stop fraud, waste, and abuse of our State resources,” the jurors write. “Given the serious fiscal limitations at all levels of government, anti-corruption efforts must stop the theft and mismanagement of vital public funds. This mismanagement and theft penalizes taxpayers by driving up the cost of all government services. Therefore, we call for an immediate repeal of what can only be referred to as Florida’s Corruption Tax.”
“We recommend the 2011 Legislative Session address our concerns with urgency, so this report focuses primarily on recommendations to changes in laws of the State of Florida.”
“We believe that the time for action is now, and we urge the Florida Legislature and other governmental bodies to address anti-corruption efforts using our findings and recommendations as a starting point.”
From outgoing Attorney General Bill McCollum’s press release on the report:
The Office of Statewide Prosecution today released the first Interim Report of the 19th Statewide Grand Jury on Public Corruption. The report outlines legislative changes that are recommended to strengthen existing civil and criminal laws to combat public corruption in the State of Florida.
“The Cadets at our nation’s military academies swear an oath to neither lie, cheat, steal, nor tolerate those who do. There is no reason we should hold our public officials to a lesser standard,” wrote the Statewide Grand Jury. “We hope our words are heard and our recommendations are followed.”
Key recommendations of the Statewide Grand Jury include:
– Expanding the definition of public employees to include private employees contracted by government entities that perform government services;
– Creating sentencing enhancements for offenses committed by officials who use their public position to facilitate their crimes;
– Creating an independent State Office of Inspector General, responsible for hiring and firing agency Inspectors General;
– Expanding definition of criminal bid tampering to include bid-rigging schemes; and
– Authorizing the Ethics Commission to initiate investigations with a supermajority vote of commission members.
Via the Associated Press:
Gov.-elect Rick Scott, who takes office Tuesday, was told of the grand jury report as he wrapped up a preinaugural tour across part of north Florida.
“Clearly I believe in accountability so I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that the citizens of the state feel comfortable that the things the state’s involved in are done fairly, honestly and with transparency,” Scott told The Associated Press.
Pam Bondi, who becomes Florida’s attorney general on Tuesday, said public corruption is widespread across Florida and that fighting it is one of her highest priorities.
“I will do everything in my power as attorney general to put a stop to it,” Bondi told The AP while traveling with Scott. “I talked about it in the campaign and that will be a priority.”
Miami Beach Democrat and former state Sen. Dan Gelber, who lost the attorney general’s race to Bondi last month and is a well-known advocate for tougher ethics rules, acknowledges that the grand jury recommendations may be well intentioned, but ultimately lie at the mercy of a legislature weary of reform. From the Times:
“The problem has not been the ideas. It’s been the unwillingness of the Legislature to really reform itself and public offices around the state,” [Gelber] said. “The Legislature refuses to seriously address public corruption. I commend the grand jury for cataloging a lot of the ideas. At the end of the day, unless there’s the political will to implement them, it will be meaningless.”
The grand jury acknowledged that very point. “We cannot ignore the reality that it is often hard to impose more severe restrictions on one’s own interests,” the jury wrote.
But the need for reform is critical, they said, adding: “When the legislature fails to act after its own members flagrantly abuse their positions, the citizens lose respect, faith and interest in government.”
According to witness testimony, Florida led the nation in the number of federally convicted public officials from 1998 through 2007 at more than 800. In 2009 alone, state and local officials accounted for 363 of 1,082 individuals charged with public corruption nationwide.
The report also notes that while some of the recommendations made in 2000 by the Public Corruption Study Commission to then-Gov. Jeb Bush were eventually adopted by the legislature, a handful of the most crucial suggestions were not accepted and remain “as valid today as they were a decade ago.”
The grand jury, which convened in February following a request by outgoing Gov. Charlie Crist, is expected to continue meeting in Fort Lauderdale till early next year.