TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Florida's cities and counties are strengthening their ethics laws and enforcement while state officials have essentially remained silent on such issues since the 1970s, a report released Thursday said.
The study by the Leroy Collins Institute, a think tank at Florida State University, and a state ethics group, Integrity Florida, said the Sunshine State has a well-documented problem with corruption at every level of government. It said an increase in exemptions to the state's open records laws and the unwillingness of lawmakers to continue ethics reform has led to Florida falling behind the rest of the country in ethics enforcement and government transparency.
"Too often, Florida has been associated with anti-ethics reform," said Carol Weissert, a Florida State political science professor and director of the Collins Institute named after a former Florida governor. "We want to be leading, we don't want to be bad examples."
The report pointed out that Florida led the nation in federal public corruption convictions from 2000 to 2010, according to data from the U.S. Department of Justice. Although some of these convictions were of state officials, many of the corruption scandals involved local government officials.
Dan Krassner, executive director at Integrity Florida, also noted that the Florida Ethics Commission, which is frequently criticized as a paper tiger, simply doesn't have enough authority to be effective.
"They just don't have the tools," Krassner said.
As a result, local governments have taken the initiative on strengthening ethics laws and not sitting idly waiting on the Legislature to take action.
"In many of the instances, reform followed the corruption," Weissert said. "While there is always more to do, Florida counties are taking the initiative in creating an ethical culture and can serve as leaders for future state action in Florida and across the nation."
Weissert and Krassner each professed confidence that new leaders in the Florida Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott's office are on board with efforts to toughen state ethics laws during the upcoming legislative session that begins in March.
"We have a commitment from our top state leaders for ethics reform," said Krassner, noting that their effort focuses on ethics policy and enforcement, lobbying, campaign financing and procurement.
The survey's findings were based on information provided by 45 of Florida's 67 counties. The survey was mailed at least twice to officials in all 67 counties.