Florida Commission on Ethics forced to write off fines | News

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Florida Commission on Ethics forced to write off fines
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- In a story we first broke Thursday night, Duval County School Board Chair Betty Burney still has not paid her nearly $7,000 ethics fines. She's not the only one who owes the Florida Commission on Ethics money. Now, lawmakers want to do something about it.

They met today to discuss how to change the law so they can collect the fines they impose. 

We found hundreds of people who owed ethics fines no longer do. Now, lawmakers want to change that.

There's a list, of more than 700 names of elected and public leaders the Florida Commission of Ethics fined for various ethics violations. The individual fines range from $25 all the way up to $1,500. More than a dozen people from the First Coast made this list. The fines total close to $1 million. But, they are fines the commission will never collect.

Representative Charles McBurney said, "Well, that's one of my concerns -- that the Florida Commission on Ethics does not have teeth."

Here's why: these ethics fines expired.  They're past their four-year statute of limitations. So now, all of these people owe nothing. We took this finding to a couple of our local state representatives, who want to change the law.

McBurney said, "I find just shocking and unacceptable, quite frankly."

Representative McBurney plans to introduce legislation later this year that would give the Ethics Commission more power.

"If they're able to lawfully impose a penalty for a violation of the law, then we ought to be able to collect any we way we would be able to collect on a judgment," he said.

That would give the Commission the power to use court ordered liens. Representative Lake Ray would like to see the law go even further. 

"Either pensions or health benefits or whatever that might be that would be available that they would be ineligible to receive those or would be willing to have those garnished until such time as the remedy is made," he said.

And these are not the only fines ethics violators haven't paid.  There's another group of people, which includes Duval County School Board Chair Betty Burney. These are cases based on complaints, usually for larger amounts of money. And these people have had hearings. Eighteen people are on this list that totals nearly $300,000. 

These are cases the Commission refers to the Attorney General's office. They have more power in the law to collect these more serious fines, including using liens, like they did on Burney's property. And they say they are actively pursuing these fines.

They say all of these 18 cases happened before Attorney General Pam Bondi took office. Since January of 2011, when Bondi took office, they say there have been 15 new ethics cases with fines the ethics commission sent to the Attorney General's office for collection. They have collected 10, they're getting payments on two, and waiting for Governor Rick Scott to approve the other three. 

At the ethics meeting today, commissioners said changing the law is a priority. They're putting together ideas to pass on to lawmakers to strengthen their power to collect.

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