A cocoon of corrupt practices

Article Courtesy of The St. Petersburg Times

St. Petersburg Times Editorial

Published April 21, 2009

Perhaps the reaction by state lawmakers to former House Speaker Ray Sansom's indictment should have been expected. They already were demonstrating how out of touch they are by their efforts to dismantle growth management, starve higher education and interfere with the right to vote. But their casual dismissal of the grand jury's indictment and scathing criticism of the political process reaffirms that the legislative branch of government has lost its way.

In language refreshingly direct, the grand jury on Friday indicted Sansom on charges of steering $6 million in college construction money to essentially a Destin Airport hangar for a friend and major Republican donor. Then the grand jury connected the dots between a state budget process that lacks transparency and a campaign finance system that launders large amounts of cash. It called for reforms in both areas. And yet many legislators still refused to accept a message that could not be clearer.

Rep. Kevin Ambler, R-Tampa: "I could indict a ham sandwich if I wanted to. We have a nation of adults that doesn't understand how the political system works.''

Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami: "If those grand jurors served in the Legislature for two years they would have come to a much different conclusion.''

Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West, on his colleagues' reactions: "I think they're surprised by the severity of the charges.''

Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Winter Haven, on the grand jury report: "disturbing. It seems pretty political.''

Actually, it seems pretty obvious. The grand jurors understood the way the system works just fine. It's the legislators who don't get it. They are so far inside a process that invites corruption, they are oblivious to its flaws. They are so protective of their own, they cannot see how the man they chose to lead the House could be charged with a crime. They are so addicted to campaign cash and power, they cannot hear how arrogant they sound.

Gov. Charlie Crist said Monday that legislators could learn from the grand jury, and he's right. For starters, lawmakers should overhaul the budget process so that all spending decisions are vetted in public. They should ask voters to adjust a 72-hour waiting period before the final budget vote that is well-intended but ineffective. And they should abolish the committees of continuing existence used by powerful legislators to take in $6 million in unlimited contributions from special interests in the last election cycle.

There are lessons to be learned from the Sansom scandal. If legislators continue to ignore them, voters in 2010 should send a message of their own.