April 19, 2014

Editor's Page

Ethics, Sort Of

Mark R. Howard | 7/4/2013

This year’s legislative session produced eight laws dealing with ethics in government. One allows the public to file ethics complaints involving public officials with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the governor’s office. Formerly, complaints could be filed only with the Florida Commission on Ethics. Another requires better and faster disclosure of campaign contributions and expenditures. It also eliminates a type of middleman organization that politicians used to raise big chunks of cash and then obscure who gave it.

Other measures tighten restrictions on former public officials who go into lobbying; require more information and accountability from Enterprise Florida and Citizens Property Insurance; and require the state to make more information on contracts and its budget available for the public to download.

Editorial pages and organizations that advocate more access to government information pronounced themselves mostly pleased with the new laws. Drawing specific praise were Senate President Don Gaetz, House Speaker Will Weatherford, Sen. Jack Latvala and Gov. Rick Scott (all Republicans) for their leadership in spending the time and political capital required to get the bills passed.

Let me add my own applause, at least one hand’s worth. Just the fact that the leadership was willing to even discuss ethics is noteworthy.

But wait. While passing eight ethics bills is nothing to sneeze at, my favorite chapter in this year’s deliberations involves the saga of a computer program called Transparency 2.0. It illustrates more about ethics and government and journalism and the challenges for all three than anything else that happened.

In 2011, the Legislature had passed a law requiring the creation of a web portal that enables the public to access the state budget and budget-related information. The Senate contracted with a firm called Spider Data Systems in Tallahassee, paying $5 million to develop Transparency 2.0, which would have cost the state $1 million a year to operate.

Here’s where the story gets delicious. Steve MacNamara, the Senate chief of staff at the time, used a — gasp! — “no-bid” contract to hire Spider. One of the partners in the company, it turned out, was a friend of MacNamara’s.

I can’t find any reporting to indicate that the “no-bid” contract overstepped any legal boundary or that MacNamara didn’t have the authority to execute it or that the company wasn’t qualified. There are, according to reports, some 500 “no-bid” contracts in state government worth more than $300 million. Anyone who’s ever worked in government is grateful when there’s a legal chance to use one because otherwise a lot would never get done, particularly done well.

But never mind. Context has a way of flying out the door when a juicy story flies innuendo. The journalists got to wear their white watchdog’s hats, and the black hat seemed to fit MacNamara pretty well — at least until it turned out that the Transparency program worked well.

Really well. It worked so well that another group of white hats — the First Amendment Foundation and a new non-profit group called Integrity Florida — jumped up and praised it, effusively. Said it would save the state millions and provide the citizens of Florida with fast and easy access to all kinds of information on state government contracts, spending, employee salaries and agency budgets. The two groups even pronounced Transparency 2.0 more comprehensive than existing “transparency” websites created by the Legislature and the state CFO’s office. Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, was quoted as saying the program was so impressive that “I think it would be a crime if the governor and the Legislature don’t go forward with it.”

The morality play got cloudy, fast, and circus ensued. Reporters and bloggers quickly began focusing on Transparency’s effectiveness rather than its no-bid heritage. The Senate had handed management of the program over to the governor’s office. Scott decided he wanted no part of it and handed it right back to the Senate, which suddenly discovered it had questions about Transparency. One senator, Alan Hays, basically said the program would provide too much information. Wow. Gaetz, ethics champion, wrote a letter with several specious objections to continuing the contract with Spider. Some suggest that vendors who do business with the state objected to having so much information about their contracts so easily available to the public — and to their competitors.

Transparency’s fate was sealed. In Tallahassee, media-tainted contract + too much open government x advocacy by “good government” types/confused morality play = Something Unpleasant in the Punch Bowl. The Senate let the contract expire on Dec. 31 and is now refusing to pay Spider Data $500,000 it still owes the company.

The charitable view of all this is that Tallahassee is the land of what’s politically possible rather than actually best for Florida. So hooray for the eight new ethics laws. But if all they do is give bureaucrats and politicians a new set of rules — and journalists a new set of potential “gotcha” stories — then we’ve accomplished very little. Serious discussions of what is and isn’t working in government will wait.

Tags: Editor's column, Government/Politics & Law

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