Photo: Amanda Voisard/The Palm Beach Post
Is Florida the corruption leader? It depends
Florida leads the the nation in public corruption — except when it doesn’t.
Retired U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, in Florida Trend’s January 2012 issue, said Florida topped a federal Justice Department state-by-state list of public officials convicted of some crime. “Florida was not only No. 1, but there was a noticeable gap between No. 1 and No. 2,” Graham said.
Similarly, watchdog group Integrity Florida reported six months later that Florida led the nation in federal public corruption convictions from 2000-10. The report earned widespread attention at the time, and the stat lives on. The New York Times recycled it in September in an article about corruption in Florida, “Arrests of 3 Mayors Reinforce Florida’s Notoriety as a Hothouse for Corruption.” The Democratic Party in June 2013 put out an ad that sought to blame Republican Gov. Rick Scott for the No. 1 ranking, an ad that ignored that the corruption occurred before Scott took office and that for four of the 10 years in question the state was led by the current front-runner for the Democratic nomination for governor, Charlie Crist. (And before him, Jeb Bush.)
Claiming the title of the most corrupt state in the nation isn’t easy. Illinois alone — with four of its last seven governors jailed — would seem a better choice. OK, maybe Illinois hits for power and Florida hits for average, but does that make Florida the most corrupt?
Like most titles, it depends on what’s measured. In the most recent decade-long period for which numbers are available — more recent than the period Integrity Florida used — Florida is third in total convictions, behind Texas and California. So Florida, the fourth-most populous state — maybe the third by now — is third in total corruption convictions. It punches near its weight, but not much above it.
Another way to look at convictions is by convictions per capita. Florida falls to No. 26.
You could compare convictions to number of government employees. We rise to No. 13.
Go another step. Compare convictions to the admittedly sparse federal data on numbers of elected legislators, city council and county commissioner types per state, and Florida claws its way to No. 6. (Virginia, by that measure, leads the nation in wrongfulness.)
To complicate matters further, a University of Illinois at Chicago study in 2012, using data from 1976 to 2010, found Illinois third and Florida fourth. On a per-capita basis, Florida was 19th in that study.
Body counts may mislead. Perhaps Florida isn’t more corrupt than other states. Maybe its crooks are just bigger clods and get caught. One way to address the question is to look at systems in place to discourage corruption. The State Integrity Investigation, a partnership of the Center For Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International, in 2012 gave Florida a C- on its “corruption risk report card.”
It should be said that Florida has significantly strengthened its ethics laws since that scorecard came out.
Manuel Maroño was just 23 when he first won election to the city governing board of Sweetwater in Miami- Dade. Seven years later, in 2002, he was mayor. By 2013, he held not only the mayor’s office but also the presidency of the Florida League of Cities. So it says something about Florida that when Maroño wanted to introduce dishonest Chicago businessmen to Florida elected officials who could be bought he took them to the league’s annual gathering in Hollywood. Of course, as Maroño later found out, the dishonest Chicagoans weren’t being honest with him. They were undercover FBI agents who already had stung him, lobbyists and the mayor of Miami Lakes, Michael Pizzi. Their August 2013 arrests began a busy time in Miami-Dade. Homestead Mayor Steve Bateman was charged in an unrelated case and, skipping over quite a few investigations of other officials, in May came the latest, North Miami Mayor Lucie Tondreau.
“The dirtiest little town in Florida,” said CNN of Hampton, notorious for its speed trap on U.S. 301. In the 1990s the north Florida town of around 500 residents annexed a strip of highway and turned it into a speed trap to fund the town’s operations. A state audit this year found 31 violations of law. The mayor was busted in 2013 for allegedly selling Oxycodone. The Legislature this year considered dissolving Hampton but relented after the city said it would de-annex the highway strip, get rid of its police force and reform. All those in office resigned after the state audit.
Former Hampton Mayor Barry Moore was sentenced to five years on charges of selling Oxycodone.