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“Corrosive” Florida Senate bill will hide public corruption rather than expose it, ethics expert says

A top Florida ethics expert is sounding the alarm about an ethics bill passed by the state Senate Thursday that would make it easier for corrupt officials to avoid investigation – and much harder for residents to hold them to account. 

“This bill would be incredibly destructive and corrosive,” said Caroline Klancke, who heads the non-profit Florida Ethics Institute and is a past deputy executive director and general counsel for the Florida Commission on Ethics. 

Florida Ethics Institute’s Caroline Klancke

The poison pill in the ethics bill (SB/7014), she said, is an amendment to require all complaints filed with the state ethics commission to be “based upon personal knowledge or information other than hearsay” in order to qualify for investigation. 

That means citizens won’t be able to use reliable public information as a basis for ethics complaints because it would be considered “hearsay,” she said. 

This would destroy the ability of Floridians to file ethics complaints based upon reports or articles exposing public corruption,” said Klancke. “The Commission on Ethics would have its hands tied. It would have to dismiss complaints based on news articles, audit reports, and Inspector General reports. That is an enormous hamstring. Those types of documents are precisely the types of documents the public wants ethics complaints to be based upon.” 

And the standard of “personal knowledge” is incredibly restrictive for those who file ethics complaints, she said.  

“People with personal knowledge are often literally people who would have serious employment repercussions if they were to file a complaint,” said Klancke. “Or people who are too afraid because of their circumstances to file a complaint.”

The bill is sponsored by Sen. Danny Burgess (R-Zephyrhills). His office hadn’t responded to a detailed voicemail for comment left by the Florida Trident prior to publication. 

Sen. Burgess (Photo courtesy: Pasco County Clerk & Comptroller)

The ethics bill isn’t the only piece of legislation filed by Burgess creating controversy this session. He has also sponsored a bill that would put environmental groups and residents who challenge environmental permits and other matters on the hook for legal fees if they lose in court. Like the ethics bill, that legislation, if passed, would make it radically more difficult for watchdog groups and individuals to challenge government actions. 

Klancke points out that the House version of the ethics bill does not yet include the “personal knowledge” amendment and says she hopes good government advocates and media groups will rally to make sure the “move to effectively hide public corruption” isn’t enacted into law. 

“I think people might not understand what this bill is,” she said, noting the unanimous 39-0 vote in the Senate. “When people learn what this really is I hope they make sure it doesn’t happen.”