In a report published to Historic City News this evening, a statewide grand jury concluded, “The public is tired of officials who abuse their position or ignore conflicts of interest.”
The full 127-page report calls for legislative changes to strengthen civil and criminal laws for violations, including for bid-rigging or tampering.
The grand jury recommended that the Florida Legislature impose tougher criminal penalties and strengthen the hand of a state ethics commission to help crack down on public corruption.
Noting that cadets at the nation’s military academies take oaths not to lie, steal, cheat or tolerate those who do so – the grand jury said Wednesday that public officials should be held to an equally high standard.
“The time for action is now,” the report says, urging lawmakers to do something in the coming 2011 session that begins in March.
“Reform is essential,” the report notes. “When the legislature fails to act after its own members flagrantly abuse their positions, the citizens lose respect, faith, and interest in the government.”
Several elected officials in Florida have had ethical run-ins in recent years; St. Johns County Commission chairman Thomas G. Manuel is currently serving time in federal prison after he finally confessed to public corruption charges and admitted accepting bribes from a local developer in exchange for the ex-commissioner’s support.
Governor-elect Rick Scott was told of the grand jury report as he wrapped up a pre-inaugural tour across part of north Florida; including Jacksonville.
“Clearly I believe in accountability,” Scott was quoted by The Associated Press. “I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that the citizens of the state feel comfortable that the things the state is involved in are done fairly, honestly and with transparency.”
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 reporters while traveling with Scott. “I talked about it in the campaign and that will be a priority.”
One recommendation would authorize the Ethics Commission to launch investigations with a super-majority vote of its commission members. That panel has largely been a paper tiger with little authority.
The report also recommends:
– Establishing harsher sentences for officials who use their public position to facilitate criminal activity.
– Expanding the definition of public employees to include private employees contracted by government entities that perform government services.
– Creating an independent State Office of Inspector General, responsible for hiring and firing agency Inspectors General.
During 10 months of deliberation, the grand jury was charged with investigating public corruption in Florida and its term is set to expire in February. It was impaneled at the behest of outgoing Gov. Charlie Crist, who said at the time he had had to remove 30 public officials during his first three years as governor.