Collier County judge sees revamped ethics panel as way to ensure honest government

Michael Carroll Mar. 18, 2016, 11:06pm

NAPLES -- Having seen too many public officeholders in Florida profit from their positions and suffer ethical lapses that damage the public trust, Collier County Judge Mike Carr has called for the creation of a more muscular Commission on Ethics that could help push dishonest public servants out of office.

“There’s no reason why both political parties can’t put honest government near the top of their priorities,” Carr told the Florida Record

The county judge recently penned an opinion article for the Naples Daily News calling for greater ethics panel powers as a means to boost public confidence in government officials.

“A lot of the population feels that public officials are really not trying to serve the public but rather their own nest,” Carr told the Record. “I want honest government, whether it’s Republican or Democrat.”

Carr, who served on the ethics commission in 2005 and 2006 with then-Chairman Thomas Scarritt Jr. of Tampa, sees the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission as a template for restructuring the ethics panel’s powers. That commission can carry out its own investigation if a judicial officer steps out of line and can recommend a punishment to the state Supreme Court, which has the power to remove the offending judge.

“If a judge screws up, they can yank their chain in 10 seconds,” Carr said.

The ethics panel should also be able to swiftly investigate, sanction officeholders and recommend that they be removed from office. The framework could require that the governor or his cabinet review the ethics panel decisions. As it stands today, “the commission’s powers are limited to assessing fines and embarrassing people,” Carr said.

The judge said that when he served on the ethics panel prior to taking his current position, he regularly saw officeholders try to explain why they accepted lavish gifts – such as skybox tickets and catered trips – from people doing business with their offices. Often, attorneys working for the public entity would advise the officeholder on ways to avoid or get around ethics rules, he said.

Other times, a “fake entity” would be established between a business with a government contract and a public commission, so that the go-between entity could dole out gifts to officeholders and thus obscure that the contract holder was the one actually behind the largess.

Another method of rigging the system would be for a government commission to call on a preferred contractor to add details to a contract that would limit the possibility of competitive bids, he said.

Carr sees such tactics as deliberate attempts to bypass or dodge criminal laws. “People will always think of ways to do evil,” he told the Record. “All we can do is encourage people to do right.”

The judge adds, however, that only a strong public outcry for reform and action in the state legislature could result in giving the ethics panel, whose membership is half Democrats and half Republicans, greater enforcement powers. Just having a strengthened, unbiased panel looking over officeholders’ shoulders might be enough of a threat to keep people in line, Carr explained.

The ethics panel was formed in 1974 to review complaints and respond to queries from Florida public officials about possible conflicts of interest through its advisory opinions.