Tuesday, Apr 22, 2014
Columns

Make fox in henhouse accountable

Florida Voices
Published:   |   Updated: May 7, 2013 at 04:44 PM

Last week I spent almost four hours gathering personal information to properly fill out my financial disclosure form. I'm happy to do this because I strongly believe the public has a right to know if those who spend your tax dollars have the potential for personal financial gain and whether their actions have led to such gains.

Every July, every elected official in Florida must fill out the form. It asks our net worth, what properties and stocks we own, and any mortgages or debts we hold. It also asks our sources of income and those we do business with. It's believed that making elected officials disclose their assets and liabilities — along with their main sources of income and those they do business with — will help the public and the media gauge whether there is unethical behavior or personal financial benefit.

With the Legislature controlling a budget that grew from $42 billion in 1997 to $70 billion this year, there is plenty of opportunity for financial gamesmanship.

The Legislature hands out lucrative contracts to thousands of businesses and groups every year. A phrase you often hear when questioning the motives behind a piece of legislation is "just follow the money." So it makes sense to look at the financial activity of decision-makers who are, after all, part-time legislators.

For sadly, a 2010 grand jury found more than 800 public officials in Florida had been convicted on public corruption charges over the prior 10 years, the most nationwide. And a recent report by Integrity Florida shows our state continues to rank first in public corruption.

But the goal of requiring financial disclosure, while laudable, may not be achieving its desired result for a variety of reasons.

The primary shortcoming is that the forms are not easily accessible. What good does it do to require disclosure if nobody can see the forms?

I have, over the years, requested a few financial disclosure forms when I suspected cozy relationships, but those requests are awkward, cumbersome and time-consuming. The lack of easy access also prevents an in-depth look into patterns and cross-referencing from year to year.

Another problem is the relevance of the information requested. While a snapshot of a legislator's financial picture might be interesting, it is not as instructive as a full accounting of their business relationships.

More emphasis should be given those with whom they do business, and to what extent those businesses seek state tax dollars.

As an example of how the disclosure forms are used, take a look at how the media treats the information. The coverage more closely resembles a National Enquirer story than an investigative report into links between policy supported by legislators and their financial ties.

The real failure lies in the lack of true accountability and enforcement. Even if the forms were accessible, how does the public know the information is complete and accurate?


Paula Dockery is a term-limited Republican senator from Lakeland.
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