TALLAHASSEE, Florida - State legislators, most of whom have other jobs outside of the Capitol, frequently vote on bills that would affect their industries. But many never disclose the potential conflicts of interest prior to voting - or in some cases, ever at all.
"The public officials we elect are supposed to represent us, not their private financial interests," said Dan Krassner, Executive Director of watchdog group Integrity Florida.
Krassner says a pair of glaring holes in the legislature's ethics policies leave taxpayers vulnerable. He's concerned politicians are putting their own personal interests ahead of taxpayers' on issues like charter schools, development, insurance rates, and even beer prices.
Conflict of Interest Disclosures
Krassner says the process to disclose potential conflicts of interest needs improvement. Not only do legislators have 15 days after a vote to file a conflict of interest disclosure, but few ever do.
Last year, there were just 20 potential conflicts of interest signed by 40 state Senators, while there were only nine among the 120 state representatives.
This year, there have been even fewer: 5 disclosures in the Senate, and 10 in the House.
"If they have something before them where they're going to make money off of their vote, they should tell us ahead of time."
Lobbyists as Legislators
Krassner also says taxpayers lose when legislators - nearly a dozen of them this year - also collect paychecks from lobbying firms. Intergrity Florida identified at least eight who apparently work for firms that lobby:
Sen. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Wellington (recently left to work for himself)
Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens
Sen. Joe Negron, R-Palm City
Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami
Rep. Joe Gibbons, D-Hallandale Beach
Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity
Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota
Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami
Public records show Abruzzo, a non-lawyer working in government relations, currently lobbies for Sunrise Sports & Entertainment, owners of the Florida Panthers. The group happens to be seeking tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer bailouts. They are also reportedly interested in building a destination casino, a volatile topic in the Capitol.
Yet Abruzzo made no mention of his employment - and filed no disclosure - before voting on SB 1216, a stadium subsidy bill that would make more money available to professional sports teams.
After 10 Investigates questioned Abruzzo about the lack of disclosure, he received a written opinion from the Senate's special council, which indicated he did not need to file a disclosure because, while his client could benefit from the legislation, "private gain or loss to your principal would be speculative."
"This is my first responsibility," Abruzzo said of his job as a legislator. "If I think that at any time, its in jeopardy or there's a conflict, I would not represent any clients."
Abruzzo also pushed a controversial bill that would reform the state's lobbying laws. Integrity Florida and other watchdogs opposed the bill, claiming it would strip many of the local laws aimed at providing transparency in politics. But the bill stalled out in committee.
House Speaker Will Weatherford told 10 Investigates he favors improved transparency and ethics reforms before the end of the 2014 session. Yet putting his chamber's conflicts of interest disclosures online - as the Senate does - has not been a priority.
A spokesperson for the Speaker said the forms are available upon request to any person who requests them, but 10 Investigates will continue to check in with the Speaker until the forms are available online.
UPDATE: A weekend report by Matt Dixon in the Tribune/Scripps Capital Bureau reports powerful State Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, has helped a client of his private law firm secure earmarks in the state's budget. Dixon reports Galvano helped IMG Academies, "a private sports and academic training academy," get $2.5 million in allocations this year from the state. IMG could also be in-line for more money from the 2014-2015 state budget.