Florida Shockingly Leads Nation in Ethics Transparency, Report Finds

Florida's ethics agency is a national front-runner when it comes to transparency, but anti-corruption laws in the state could use some tightening.
Florida's ethics agency is a national front-runner when it comes to transparency, but anti-corruption laws in the state could use some tightening. Photo by David Wilson via Flickr
Florida is back to draining swamps, and for once, it's not the Everglades. Long considered one of the most corrupt places in the country, the Sunshine State is apparently raising the bar when it comes to transparency in ethics enforcement.

That's according to the anti-corruption nonprofit Coalition for Integrity, which recently released its annual report known as the S.W.A.M.P. index (States With Anti-Corruption Measures for Public officials). For many, "the swamp" might inspire images of K Street lobbyists hatching murky deals in backrooms in D.C. — and that's exactly why the report's authors wanted to spotlight state, city, and small-town public officials, who have been under increasingly less scrutiny as local journalism weakens outside of large metropolitan areas.

"State laws are often the first line of defense against corruption and cover thousands of officials, employees, and legislators nationwide," Coalition for Integrity's Laurie Sherman and Shruti Shah wrote in a post on their report. 

Of the 43 states (and the District of Columbia) that currently have ethics agencies with enforcement power, Florida's commission is in a four-way tie for first place along with Colorado, Minnesota, and Rhode Island. All four front-runner states received perfect transparency scores of 100, while 25 states received failing grades of 60 or lower.

Focusing on a three-year period starting in 2016, the report's transparency rankings were based on whether there was publicly available information about how many complaints were filed to a state's ethics commission in a given year. The rankings also analyzed how many of the complaints were dismissed, how many were resolved with a finding of an ethics violation, and how many were resolved with a finding of no ethics violation. The authors also considered whether state commission decisions were made publicly available along with annual or biennial reports.

On the enforcement side, Florida did stand out in a few categories, having issued a fine of $10,000 or more in the past three years. And it was one of few states to recommend that a public official be removed from office for ethics violations. However, the report made a point of not ranking states by enforcement, given that state agencies have different budgetary and human resources available.

Last year's S.W.A.M.P. index skipped on ethics transparency and focused instead on the strength of anti-corruption laws in different states. On this one, Florida didn't do so hot, receiving a near-failing grade of 64 out of 100. Unlike other states, Florida's ethics commission does not have the power to initiate its own investigations. It can only act on referrals from law enforcement and the governor's office. Worse still, the commission does not have an independent budget, meaning its yearly funding depends entirely on the Legislature's whim.

"I've heard people say [Florida's ethics commission] is a paper tiger and that it's weak. But any weakness there is not the commission's fault — it's due to the state Legislature's failure to give them the tools they need to enforce ethics laws," says Brian Wilcox, research director at Integrity Florida, a government watchdog based in Tallahassee.

In its 2018 annual report, the Florida Commission on Ethics made various legislative recommendations to improve the state's ethics and corruption framework, including requiring municipal governing board members to file the same full financial disclosures as other elected officials.

Wilcox says he would like to see the commission, which currently can garnish wages of public officials who owe fines, further empowered to put liens on the personal property of ethics rulebreakers. He also thinks the maximum fine — now $10,000 — should be raised as high as $25,000. 

"My worry is that some public officials will consider small fines as just a part of doing business," Wilcox says. "We need to find a level of fine that will make public officials take this seriously."

The good news is that stricter ethics rules are on the way. In 2018, voters passed Amendment 12, which bans elected officials and government employees from lobbying the state and federal government during their tenures and for six years thereafter. The amendment also expands the scope of legal conflicts of interest, making it more difficult for officials to get a "disproportionate benefit" from their actions in office.

Following the 2020 elections, the state Legislature will set penalties for violating the new, tighter ethics standards.
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Manuel Madrid is a former staff writer for Miami New Times. The child of Venezuelan immigrants, he grew up in Pompano Beach. He studied finance at Virginia Commonwealth University and worked as a writing fellow for the magazine The American Prospect in Washington, D.C.