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An Elephant in the Chamber

Whenever there's a flare-up involving ethics in Tallahassee, the medicine that's prescribed generally ends up treating a symptom rather than the disease. A really effective treatment would be a complex regimen of laws, public accountability, voter attentiveness and aggressive enforcement -- a phenomenon as rare as Halley's comet.

As Washington Monthly founder Charlie Peters has often commented, "It's not what's illegal that's the scandal, but what's legal." Legislators' solicitation of campaign contributions is banned during sessions, for example, but it's not illegal for political parties to hold fund-raisers. Legislators attend. They just have to keep their hands in their own pockets until the session is over.

Senate President Tom Lee has shown particular sensitivity to lobbyists. In his inaugural speech last November, he commented that the state lobbyists didn't get interested in his first campaign until it looked like he would win. Then, Lee added sarcastically, they considered their belated contributions "an investment."

In focusing on lobbyists, Senate President Tom Lee is tugging at the wrong end.As lobbyists and the anti-lobbyist warily eyeballed each other, the extended flap over the chiropractic school at Florida State University added a twist. The school was a pet project last year of Sen. Jim King, then the Senate president, and Sen. Dennis Jones of Pinellas County, a chiropractor with 24 years in the Legislature and the Senate majority leader at the time. Lee supported the plan too -- after all, a future Senate president wouldn't want senators getting the idea that it's OK to oppose a pet cause of the Senate president.

As opposition to the school grew, King made a vague threat that FSU's budget might be cut because of the resistance. Lee bristled. He told reporters he wanted to "react" to the "appearance emerging in the press that we were a bunch of bullies." Well, are you? "We're only a bunch of bullies if the presiding officers let us turn into a bunch of bullies," Lee replied.

Lee got the idea that Board of Governors members and FSU trustees who are lobbyists were falling victim to legislative pressure on the chiropractic school. So Lee proposed keeping lobbyists off those bodies. "We have 17.4 million Floridians," Lee said. "We can't find a hundred talented people who don't butter their bread in the Florida Legislature to serve on the Board of Governors? Give me a break."

Well that's true. But didn't the governor appoint those people, and isn't it the legislators who are the source of the undesirable influence?

Scarlet letter
Legislators create an ethical morass and then fix blame elsewhere: On lobbyists, corporations, money, political parties, even the media. Instead of challenging senators' ethics and behavior, Lee challenged lobbyists' independence.

Let it be said that Tom Lee is a breath of fresh air. So is the more low-key House Speaker, Allan Bense. They tightened fund-raising rules and have set a new tone of integrity and public interest.

But maybe we need a different kind of disclosure -- maybe a scarlet letter emblazoned over the hearts of legislators who are unfaithful to the public interest.

A Senate president with life or death influence over legislation might block self-promotional legislation. He (and let's not forget the House Speaker) might follow with legislators the same rule Lee announced for lobbyists with a bill: "They better explain to me why this is going to benefit the people back home."

Four years ago, the Center for Public Integrity compared information about lawmakers, including their assets, with their committee assignments and other legislative duties in 47 states. In Florida, 21% of legislators were on legislative committees that regulated their profession or business, and 28% had a financial interest in a business or organization that lobbied state government.

Of course, relying on public shaming assumes that it makes any electoral difference. Most legislative elections are meaningless. Legislative districts are drawn to protect incumbents. Every legislator who sought re-election last year won.

And what about influence on, or by, lobbyists who are business partners of legislators?

Starting in 1967, a Florida Bar ethics opinion barred lawyers from lobbying the Legislature if one of their law partners was a member of the Legislature. That rule made legislator Richard Pettigrew quit his Miami law firm, which represented a pari-mutuel racetrack and other clients. Pettigrew asked the Bar committee if he could just recuse himself from voting on those issues, as he said he had done in the past. No dice, the Bar said.

But in 1998, Winter Park lawyer R. Dean Cannon, of the GrayRobinson law and lobbying firm, was thinking of running for the House and asked the Bar's ethics committee to withdraw the opinion. He said the Bar's role was supplanted by subsequent laws regulating lobbying and creating the Florida Ethics Commission. The Bar committee turned Cannon down, but on appeal, the Bar's governing board eliminated the rule.

Cannon eventually did run for the House, in 2004, and won. He joins another GrayRobinson lawyer in the Legislature, State Sen. Burt L. Saunders, R-Naples. Two of their partners, Fred Leonhardt and founder Charlie Gray, made Florida Trend's "most influential" list last year. Gray isn't a registered lobbyist, but Leonhardt lists 14 lobbying clients.

And at the Miami law firm of Broad & Cassel, which touts its three lobbyists in Tallahassee, the designated next House Speaker, Marco Rubio, is "of counsel."

Out of focus
The Florida Ethics Commission approved such arrangements in 2003 as long as certain conditions are met. "Members of the Legislature are expected to serve as citizen-legislators on a part-time basis and must be employed elsewhere to support themselves and their families," it said.

No legislator, however, is allowed to benefit personally from the lobbying fees paid to his partners. Cannon, for example, told me that his compensation doesn't include any benefit from the firm's lobbying fees. He also said he would treat lobbyists from his firm like "any other lobbyist or non-lobbyist" who came to see him.

A couple of hours after we talked, Cannon called back. He had changed his mind. "I'm going to have a policy of not having anyone from the firm lobby me," he said. "If you can avoid even the appearance of impropriety, you're better off. You've only got one reputation."

The Ethics Commission opinion seems to set the same standard.

That all this fuss over lobbying should come to a head in the context of the now dead FSU chiropractic school shows how distorted this political world is. Far more significant issues have been sidetracked by lobbyists who serve on decision-making bodies but make decisions based on their own narrow interests. But they're on the commissions in the first place because an elected official appointed them.

So Lee is onto something. But in focusing on lobbyists, he's like the blind man and the elephant. He thinks he has hold of the elephant, but he only has hold of its tail.