Ethics chairwoman lobbies for change in unreceptive corners

Article Courtesy of The St. Petersburg Times

By Steve Bousquet

Published January 17, 2010

TALLAHASSEE The term "government ethics" is seen as an oxymoron, like "jumbo shrimp."

But in a political age dominated by the excesses of Scott Rothstein and Alan Mendelsohn, and with the taint of Ray Sansom lingering like a bad hangover, you might expect elected leaders to be crusading for tougher ethics laws.

Only you don't, and that's the problem.

Enter Cheryl Forchilli.

A stay-at-home mom and nonpracticing lawyer from Tampa, she chairs the Florida Commission on Ethics. She apparently has had it with people belittling the agency as a toothless tiger, a watchdog that's all bark and no bite.

Forceful and direct, Forchilli traveled to the Capitol this week to lobby for passage of laws that would give the ethics commission more power.

She got a polite greeting, but no promises of support.

Here are highlights of what the commission wants from the Legislature:

The power to kick-start its own investigations without waiting for a citizen to file a formal complaint.

A broader definition of what constitutes a voting conflict, to prevent an elected official from lobbying behind the scenes for a project that would benefit him financially, then abstaining at the last minute.

Steeper fines for the worst ethical lapses. The maximum is now $10,000, with most fines typically $1,000 or less, which Forchilli acidly termed "the cost of doing business," especially in South Florida. She wants to levy fines up to $30,000.

"We need to hold public officials to a higher standard, and the process just isn't doing that," Forchilli said in a meeting with House Speaker Larry Cretul.

Forchilli then took her cause down the hall to the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, where she talked about the silliness of requiring a formal complaint by a citizen before the agency can investigate an official's conduct.

"The Florida Highway Patrol doesn't wait for somebody to drive by and say, 'Hey! That guy was speeding!' " she said.

The image of toothlessness is seriously damaging to democracy, she said, because it perpetuates the notion that a politician who crosses an ethical line will get no more than a slap on the wrist.

"The public is actually paying attention to all these issues," she said.

But let's face it. Politicians are deathly afraid of a powerful ethics commission. They speak in hushed tones about the likelihood of "witch hunts" against guiltless officials.

Attorney Mark Herron, an ethics law expert and former commission chairman, does not agree with allowing the agency, even in limited cases, to launch its own investigations. He pointed to Article II, Section 8(f) of the Florida Constitution, which includes a reference to an independent commission with the power to act "on all complaints concerning breach of public trust."

"They're not there to throw you in jail," Herron said. "They're not the state attorney. They're there to resolve petty political agendas."

Forchilli and the agency's executive director, Phil Claypool, made this argument: It's in the Legislature's interest to have a powerful ethics agency, so that when a complaint is dismissed, it won't look like a whitewash by a group of weak-kneed political appointees.

Searching for any way to make her case, Forchilli smiled at Cretul and said: "And none of this costs anything."

"So we can't use that as an excuse, huh?" Cretul replied, adding quickly: "I'm kidding!"

But in an age of Rothstein, Mendelsohn and Sansom, let's see how seriously lawmakers take Forchilli's suggestions.