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Senator: Florida Elections Commission, Commission on Ethics are "toothless"

9:53 PM, Nov 16, 2011   |    comments
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TAMPA BAY, Florida - It was David taking down Goliath, except in this renewal of the story, David learned a costly lesson about playing with the big boys.

More than a year after the grass-roots group "No Tax for Tracks" helped defeat a well-funded rail referendum, it was slapped with a $680 fine from the Florida Elections Commission (FEC) for not filling out its campaign paperwork on-time.  The "suburban soccer moms" who fought the tax turned in financial documents due on Oct. 1, 2010, five days late.

"It's mind-boggling--what you have to file and all the paperwork that you have to do," said No Tax for Tracks co-founder Sharon Calvert.

Calvert says her group was learning about elections filings on-the-fly and they'll know better next time.  They also expect to pay the fine promptly.

But many more experienced candidates have learned it sometimes pays better to ignore the fines.

Because the FEC and Florida Commission on Ethics have such little authority to enforce - and collect on - fines, hundreds go unpaid each year, costing the state hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenue.

According to the FEC, there are currently 184 fines that remain outstanding, totaling $1.4 million in potential revenue.  Most are $1,000 or less and were assessed for delinquent campaign filings.

However, all the FEC can do to collect the fines is put a lien on the candidate's home - if he or she is a homeowner.  Of the 184 violations, 10 News found just 20 liens filed.  After 20 years, the lien simply disappears.

The FEC's biggest unpaid fines:

  1. $466,500 - Ted Bradbham - Texas lawyer fined in 1999 for bribery and attempted rigging of a West Palm Beach state attorney's election
  2. $100,710 - Miguel Aguirre - Hialeah mayoral candidate fined in 2002 for violating campaign advertising and finance laws
  3. $79,800 - Bill Proctor Jr. - Leon Co. Commissioner fined in 2002 for violating campaign contribution and disclosure laws
  4. $66,475 - Peter Schorsch - St. Petersburg activist and consultant fined in 2006 for falsifying campaign filings
  5. $48,000 - Darryl Reaves - Former state representative from Miami who received numerous fines in 1999 after failed runs for Congress, county commission, and state senate.

The FEC is hoping the legislature will toughen elections laws in the upcoming session.

"It is not unreasonable to expect candidates to pay fines for violating state election or campaign finance laws, and they should not be allowed to run for public office until they do," said Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark in an e-mail to the 10 News Investigators.

"Just think about it," she continued. "You can get arrested for letting unpaid traffic tickets pile up, you can't even check out library books until you pay all outstanding fines, and try using your credit card if you haven't paid your bill in a few months."

The Florida Commission on Ethics has even less authority than the FEC.  Not only can it not initiate ethics investigations unless a citizen files a complaint, it can only try to collect from violators for four years.  If a collections agency is not able to collect the fine after four years, most are simply wiped off the books.

The Commission on Ethics continues trying to collect on complaint-related penalties, but last year, they wrote off nearly $190,000 in unpaid fines from delinquent form-filing.

"There's not enough teeth in the laws today," said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who has been trying to pass a bill strengthening the Commission on Ethics.  "It should have the ability to hit those that are violators with harder and stiffer penalties.  Many times, (violators) just get a slap on the wrist and sent on their way."

Last year, Fasano's bill was voted down in the second of three committees it needed to pass through before being heard on the Senate floor. 

"This was a simple bill that sent a message to public officials that if you're going to violate the law and it enhances your own finances or someone in your family, we're not going to tolerate it in Florida. Unfortunately, my colleagues didn't agree with me."

Fasano has re-filed his ethics bill for the upcoming session, but it faces an uphill battle.

In Feb. 2011, Senate President Mike Haridopolos was found guilty of a number of ethical violations, but the complaint process skirted the Commission on Ethics.  Instead, Haridopolos' Senate Rules committee - filled with members he appointed - admonished the president without a fine.

Connect with 10 News Investigator Noah Pransky on Facebook at www.facebook.com/noahpransky or Twitter at www.twitter.com/noahpransky.  Send your story tips to noah@wtsp.com.

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