Grand jury: Get tougher with crooked elected officials and government workers

Article Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel

By Paula McMahon

Published January 3, 2011


A statewide grand jury investigating public corruption in Florida issued its first report late Wednesday, calling for tougher punishments and better laws to crack down on crooked elected officials and government employees.

The grand jury, which has been meeting in Fort Lauderdale since February, issued dozens of recommendations that it said could help make government more honest and restore public confidence.

Set up at the request of outgoing Gov. Charlie Crist in response to a series of embarrassing arrests and revelations of misconduct, including the arrests of several politicians in Broward and Palm Beach counties, the grand jury is expected to continue meeting until at least February.

Among the grand jury's top recommendations released in its 127-page report on Wednesday:

Toughen existing laws to fight public corruption in Florida;

Create harsher sentences for offenses committed by officials who use their public position to commit crimes;

Expand the definition of public employees to include private contractors that perform government services;

Create an independent State Office of Inspector General to hire and fire agency inspectors general;

Expand the definition of criminal bid tampering to include bid-rigging schemes;

Allow the state Commission on Ethics, which is seen as a toothless tiger, to initiate its own investigations with a majority vote of commission members.

While the grand jury's recommendations are well-intentioned, Bob Jarvis, a Nova Southeastern University law professor who teaches ethics, said taxpayers probably shouldn't hold their collective breath waiting for politicians to put the suggestions into practice.

"We get these sorts of blue ribbon panels and their reports periodically and nothing ever changes," Jarvis said. "It's very easy to make these recommendations but you have to have the political will to make the changes, you have to have the tax dollars to pay for the increased scrutiny, and you have to have the public clamoring for change."

Perhaps anticipating that reality, the grand jurors wrote that corruption in Florida costs taxpayers a great deal and that concerted efforts to attack the problem would save the state money. They called for an immediate repeal of what they said "can only be referred to as Florida's Corruption Tax."

"Better efforts to prevent and penalize corruption are necessary in order to stop fraud, waste, and abuse of our state resources, " the grand jurors wrote. " the theft and mismanagement of vital public funds penalizes taxpayers by driving up the cost of all government services."

Public corruption has been in the spotlight in the past few years, particularly in Broward and Palm Beach counties. A slew of federal and state investigations have led to criminal charges against about a dozen local politicians, and a handful have served or are serving prison terms for corruption-related crimes. The Broward State Attorney's Office is conducting several ongoing corruption investigations.

The statewide grand jury is made up of 18 members meeting in secret under the direction of the Office of Statewide Prosecution and assisted by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

The grand jury has heard testimony from a wide range of witnesses including sitting politicians, state and federal prosecutors, and other law enforcement agents that investigate corruption and government employees.

The grand jury report noted that state prosecutors face many barriers in tackling corruption and getting convictions. Among those obstacles is the fact that many acts that should be criminal, are not covered by existing state laws, the grand jury found.

Corruption cases are also "too difficult to prove" because of the way laws are written and the elements of proof that are required to find a public official guilty, they said. Instead of having to prove that an official acted "corruptly" or "with corrupt intent," the jurors recommended prosecutors should only have to prove an official acted "knowingly" or intentionally.

Punishments are often too lenient and do not fit the crime, the grand jurors found.

The grand jury also recommended that several actions, such as misuse of a public position, which are currently only civil violations, be made criminal. They suggested boosting the maximum civil fine from $10,000 to $100,000.

Public officials should also be forced to disclose any possible conflict of interest when they vote on an issue and receive a contribution to a charity they are associated with, the jurors recommended.

"While we want charitable contributions, we don't want them to be made for dirty reasons," they said in their report.

The state should devote more financial resources to rooting out and prosecuting criminal misconduct by elected officials and public employees, as well as private contractors who are performing government work, the report recommended.

The jurors also recommended giving greater protections and independence to inspectors general that investigate misconduct within government agencies. They suggested providing financial rewards and greater protections to whistleblowers that report criminal activity.

The report cited a Sun Sentinel news article that found that public officials were not filing required gift disclosure forms. "A public official may determine it is better to not file and face civil penalties then risk disclosing a false statement which could subject the official to criminal penalties. It is evident that the strategy in politics is that it is better to simply not file and pay a fine if caught," the jurors wrote. They recommended making it a crime to fail to file the required form.

Greater oversight is also required of government spending, according to the report. In one case on which the grand jury heard testimony, it was discovered that employees in a southwest division of Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission had submitted more than $200,000 worth of personal expenses using false receipts. Taxpayer money was used to furnish employees' homes, redo kitchens and even buy lingerie, they found.