Is the integrity of Integrity Florida now in question?

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Buckle up, kids: this one is complicated.

First, make yourself familiar with a fantastically-named organization called Integrity Florida.  This is “a nonpartisan, nonprofit research institute and government watchdog whose mission is to promote integrity in government and expose public corruption.”

Excellent!  We could use one of those here in Florida.  

Our vision is government in Florida that is the most open, ethical, responsive and accountable in the world.

No matter what side of the political spectrum you call home, I think we can all agree that these are noble missions and goals.  I think we can also agree that these guys have their work cut out for them.

Ethics in government isn’t always as straightforward as we think it should be.  Hey, it’s easy to point a finger at the guys on the other side who do wrong — obvious wrong.  But, as they say in the comic bookswho watches the Watchmen?   

In other words, who ensures the… well, integrity of Integrity Florida? 

It is a reasonable question, and one brought into stark relief as they released a scathing report on an organization called Enterprise Florida [read the full report here], “the official economic development organization of the State of Florida.”

The report is tough on this Legislature-created entity designed to support the business presence in the state and boost the economy.  For example:

1. Enterprise Florida has failed to meet its job creation objective: In 1992, the Florida Legislature created Enterprise Florida with an initial objective of creating 200,000 highwage jobs by 2005. After operating for twenty years and despite negotiating more than 1,600 transactions involving economic development incentive agreements worth more than $1.7 billion, Enterprise Florida reports that only 103,544 jobs have been delivered since 1995 – half of their original target and eight years beyond its original target date. 

2. Enterprise Florida has failed to obtain its required level of private sector support: As a public-private partnership, Enterprise Florida is expected to obtain private sector support to help pay for its costs of operation. The Florida Legislature required Enterprise Florida to obtain 50% private sector contributions by Fiscal Year 2000-01. As of Fiscal Year 2010-11, more than 85% of Enterprise Florida’s funding comes from government and less than 15% comes from the private sector.

3. Enterprise Florida has the appearance of pay-to-play: Enterprise Florida, while subject to the dominion and control of the Florida Legislature, collects on average $50,000 each from corporate members for about half of the seats on the organization’s board of directors. Several Enterprise Florida board member companies received incentive agreements and vendor contracts following negotiations with Enterprise Florida staff during  the 2012 fiscal year giving the appearance of pay-to-play.

4. Enterprise Florida has apparent conflicts of interest: The Enterprise Florida Board of Directors and the organization’s staff have a relationship that may be a conflict of interest. Enterprise Florida staff bonus pay of nearly $500,000 ($427,500 for staff, $70,000 for President/CEO) in 2012 was provided by Enterprise Florida board member companies that were also Enterprise Florida vendors and others that were recipients of incentive deals in the 2012 fiscal year.

5. Enterprise Florida is picking winners and losers: A number of executed agreements detailed in the 2012 Enterprise Florida Incentives Report demonstrate clear state government favoritism of some companies and industries. Enterprise Florida issues unnecessary benefits packages to entice businesses that should already be attracted Florida’s business friendly environment. These benefits are not necessarily enjoyed by competitors across an industry or all businesses moving to or expanding in Florida.

All pretty bad stuff, right?  Sure, it’s awful.  

Are you outraged that your tax dollars support this scheme?  Sure you are.

But what if I told you that the information you just read was funded in part by the Florida branch of Americans for Prosperity?  

Americans for Prosperity, you’ll recall, is the Koch Brothers outfit designed to do just a handful of things, as long as the top thing remains defeating whatever happens to be at the top of President Obama’s policy agenda.  One of the most chilling profiles I’ve ever read was Jane Mayer’s account of these basically evil men who will stop at nothing until America is rendered a libertarian cesspool, where guys like them spend their days and nights lighting cigars with hundred dollar bills, and suckers like me and you duke it out for survival in some kind of modern-day Ayn Randian Thunderdome.

It remains a little bit of a mystery to me why the Koch Brothers would fund something that essentially attacked a pro-business operation like Enterprise Florida.  After all, I thought sucking public dollars and funneling them to private organizations was the name of the game.  Who knows, maybe they needed a touch of street cred for something else down the road.  

More important, why would Integrity Florida partner with such a blatantly partisan group as Americans for Prosperity?  This is how the very first sentence on the AFP “about” page reads:

Americans for Prosperity is a grassroots movement of over 2.3 million activists nationwide who advocate and promote limited government, lower taxes, and more freedom. 

Well, sure they’re going to fund a study that says we should cut the knees out of a government-founded organization.  Surely Dan Krassner, the Executive Director of Integrity Florida, understood this.

This is all a fairly big deal — big enough that Integrity Florida board member Martin Dyckman, a retired associate editor for the Tampa Bay Times as well as a columnist and reporter, resigned his spot on their board

Dyckman said he asked Krassner to indicate on the report that not all members of the board agreed with the sponsorship of the report. He said was disappointed in the decision by Integrity Florida head, Dan Krassner, to refuse that request and to accept the financing but “it is a step too far for me.”

Why wouldn’t Krassner take that simple step, I wonder?

It’s a little bit like me starting a gun control organization and getting the Brady Campaign to fund a study saying we need universal background checks on all guns.  Of course we need universal background checks on guns.  But wouldn’t my study have had more validity — or at least be taken more seriously — if I’d partnered with, say, the National Science Foundation, or maybe something like local hospitals?  Maybe the Census Bureau?  Department of Justice?  Local law enforcement?    

What am I saying?  What does all of this mean?  

It means we need to actually do ethical things in government, not talk about doing them.  In my view, government leaders should set those benchmarks, not organizations whose hearts may (or may not) be in the right place.  

In the end, I regard it largely as I do things like PolitiFact and the Washington Post’s Fact Checker.  All the Pinnochios and Pants-on-Fires can be useful to you when you’re talking about the other guy.  But mostly they serve as distractions — and when they’re downright wrong, it’s hard to set things right.  Once the story has been told, well… it’s a done deal.  

Often, like the fact-checkers, too, things that sound above politics are used as political cudgels.  And then, when the actual truth comes out, it’s too late: the story has been told, and it has the imprimatur of this “above politics” kind of organization or group.   

It’s true.  We need a more ethical Florida — we all agree on it.  After this, you can’t help but feel we’ve taken a step back.

Cross-posted with permission of The Spencerian.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.