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House committee advances lobbying ban; impeachment power for attorneys, public defenders

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Florida lawmakers advanced two key pieces of legislation through the House Thursday, including one to lengthen the period before elected officials could begin lobbying after their time in office.

The other bill would make state attorneys and public defenders in each judicial district eligible for impeachment under the governor’s power.

In an overwhelming vote, the House Public Integrity and Ethics Committee passed PCB PIE 17-01 and HJR 999, though there was thorough debate by both the public and committee members on each measure.

PCB PIE 17-01, which has yet to be given a bill number and was introduced by Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, vice chair of the committee, leaps forward from two years to six years before a former Florida lawmaker can be compensated for through connections and inherent benefits legislators reap while employed in such positions.

The intention, Sullivan said, was to hedge off corruption while re-establishing integrity in elected officials. By waiting six years, those supposed connections in the Statehouse may no longer be there, she said.

“I think it’s really important that we instill trust in this process again,” she told the committee in closing the measure after debate. “I think we owe that to the (constituents).”

For years, corruption scandals have plagued Florida lawmakers, bringing about wide skepticism among the voters of the Sunshine State.

Rep. Chuck Clemons, Sr., agreed with the amendment in debate, referencing the widespread practice of lawmakers becoming lobbyists on behalf of special interest groups due to the close connections they typically still have after leaving office.

“How do you stop the revolving door unless you stop the revolving door,” he said. “This is the ‘kill the certain perks’ bill. This is the ‘no longer fresh’ bill. You’re serving because you believe in the rock bottom idea that you are serving to serve, not to gain anything.”

But Rep. David Richardson, while in favor of the measure, had concerns it might be unconstitutional, citing a typical noncompete clause when leave a job is usually two years.

“A court could look at this down the road and ask what is a reasonable amount of time — two years is a reasonable amount of time, but beyond that it might be an unreasonable amount of time,” Richardson, an attorney, said. “Now, I think as public servants we should hold ourselves to a higher standard, but a court may say six years is too long of an amount of time.”

The committee voted unanimously in favor, with two committee members absent.

On HJR 999, the motivation behind the amendment was to hold state attorneys and public defenders throughout the state to the same accountability as other offices, Rep. Jackie Toledo, the measure’s sponsor, told the committee.

Toledo’s proposal seeks to amend the Florida Constitution to give the House authoritative powers to impeach state attorneys and public defenders in each of the state’s 20 judicial districts for violations that include misdemeanor offenses in while in office. It also subjects them to a trial by the Senate, if impeached and preserves the governor’s ongoing authority to suspend those holding such offices.

In the past, state attorneys and public defenders were exempt from such acts.

In the public debate forum, a knowledgeable and thought-provoking citizen took the podium — Brian Pitts, also known as ‘Justice-2-Jesus,” is well-known among legislators — challenging the legitimacy of Toledo’s measure.

He turned from the committee and directly addressed Toledo, who had taken a seat with the public.

“I was trying to figure out what this is fixing — what is this fixing?” he said. “They can’t be suspended by anyone except the governor. You’re not going to educate the public about this. You can read it on paper all you want, but to do it — to really do it? No way. You don’t just do something like this to do it. I don’t know what you all are doing here with this thing.”

Clemens chimed in later, saying, “It’s just looking ahead into the future in case something does happen.”

Fourteen committee members voted in favor, with one denying; three were absent.

Les Neuhaus is an all-platform journalist, with specialties in print reporting and writing. In addition to Florida Politics, he freelances as a general-assignment and breaking-news reporter for most of the major national daily newspapers, along with a host of digital media, and a human rights group. A former foreign correspondent across Africa and Asia, including the Middle East, Les covered a multitude of high-profile events in chronically-unstable nations. He’s a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, in which he served as a Security Policeman, and graduated from the University of Tennessee with a B.A. in political science. He is a proud father to his daughter and enjoys spending time with his family.

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