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Public corruption bill hits snag amid senators’ furor

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An anti-corruption bill with roots in the editorial department of a newspaper hit a snag in a Senate panel Monday, after a protracted debate over specific provisions and about the proper role of the news media momentarily killed it.

Former Senate President Don Gaetz is carrying SB 582, a bill which began as a proposal by the Florida-based Gannett chain of newspapers and Florida Today public interest columnist Matt Reed.

The measure’s early adopters says it would prevent “bid-rigging” and other corrupt practices by adding government contractors to the list of entities currently subject to state anti-bribery laws. Its backers say it is uncontroversial and broadly supported, including by legislative presiding officers, all 20 Florida state attorneys, and several local governments.

But Sen. Jack Latvala, speaking for a handful of other senators who voted to halt the bill, took umbrage that a newspaper would misuse the public trust and its influence by lobbying the Legislature.

Reed spoke in support of the proposal at a meeting of the Senate Governmental Oversight and Accountability committee, saying the bill represents a consensus based on its own research, a state grand jury, and input from readers.

“Let me just say this,” said Latvala, visibly unhappy at encroachment by the Fourth Estate. “This is my 14th year and this is the first time I’ve ever seen anything like this.”

Buddy Jacobs, next in line to testify after Reed on behalf of the state attorneys, attempt to waive his time at the lectern in support of the bill. He was summoned, however, to defend his position by Latvala, who thinks the bill would outlaw charity giveaways and other innocuous exchanges between Floridians who contract with the government.

Jacobs said the bill would only outlaw those who “knowingly and intentionally request, solicit, accept or agree to accept,” reading from the bill, any pecuniary or other benefit not authorized by law which is given with an intent to influence any act or mission which a person believes to be either the official discretion of a public contractor in violation of the contract.

“That’s an extraordinary burden. It is not going to be easy, and we’re not going to be wasting anybody’s time going after [holiday] turkeys,” said Jacobs. “I understand your grave concerns, but that is not our business.”

Latvala responded with an example wherein a state attorney indicted the mayor of Orlando for compensating people for collecting absentee ballots on his behalf, something Latvala said was intended to be excluded in the law, which he considered in the Senate.

“It’s a real-life concern,” said Latvala, referring to excessive zeal of prosecutors seeking to indict elected officials.

Committee Chairman Sen. Jeremy Ring brought the heated debate to a close, saying most people agree state attorneys sometimes indict based on “irrational” bases, but senators would have to decide for themselves whether the bill would promote such acts or not.

Latvala maintained the bill’s language was sufficiently vague to warrant voting it down, though he supports the concept of tightening restrictions on how government contractors may operate.

“I’ve made very clear that there are some good aspects to this bill,” said Latvala. “But I’m very, very concerned with a newspaper which editorializes in support of candidates coming in here and pushing us to do something like this, and making me feel like somehow I’m a crook if I don’t vote for this.

“I’ve never seen an editorial writer up here doing this kind of thing. Maybe that’s how we sell newspapers these days,” Latvala added. “I’m rebelling at that as much as anything here. I just think it’s wrong.”

Gaetz said he respects Latvala – former chairman of the Ethics & Elections committee – and his view on ethics. The two helped to pass what Gaetz called the toughest ethics reform law in recent memory. But he rejected Latvala’s claim it was inappropriate for entities who support candidates to lobby, saying it was a common practice, and maintained the bill’s provisions were narrow and well-intentioned.

Sens. John Legg and Dwight Bullard joined Latvala in disagreement, effectively killing the bill. Ring also voted against it, but then made a motion to reconsider the bill, a legislative maneuver that allows the proposal to come back for reconsideration.

Ryan Ray writes about campaigns and public policy in Tampa Bay and across the state. A contributor to FloridaPolitics.com and before that, The Florida Squeeze, he covers the Legislature as a member of the Florida Capitol Press Corps and has worked as a staffer on several campaigns. He can be reached at ryan@floridapolitics.com.

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