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Broward, Palm Beach county prosecutors want new anti-corruption law
Amid a series of public corruption scandals that have so far hauled up eight Broward and Palm Beach county officials on charges, the top prosecutors in the two counties are joining forces to seek passage of a new law tightening the screws on dishonest politicians.
"It will fill a lot of loopholes and hopefully restore peoples' confidence," Broward State Attorney Mike Satz said Thursday.
Satz said existing law covers bribery, unlawful compensation and theft, but doesn't address every kind of public corruption.
If the new measure is passed, Palm Beach County State Attorney Michael McAuliffe said, prosecutors could target public officials who willfully fail to disclose financial benefits they get in connection with their public actions.
In its simplest terms, such a law might be used to prosecute an official who votes to buy palm trees from a certain vendor — and doesn't disclose that he and his spouse are about to get work as consultants for the nursery.
Satz and McAuliffe plan to announce their proposed "Restoring Faith in Public Office Act" at a news conference on Friday.
Appearing with them will be the legislators sponsoring the measure: state Rep. Ari Porth, D-Coral Springs, who is chairman of the Broward Legislative Delegation and a prosecutor in Satz's office; and state Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, a candidate for Florida attorney general whose district includes part of South Broward.
Gelber has introduced ethics measures for much of his career — and often seen the ideas die.
But in recent months, the public has seen federal prosecutors go after a sitting Broward County commissioner and School Board member and a former Miramar commissioner. In the past four years, prosecutors have put three Palm Beach County commissioners and two West Palm Beach commissioners behind bars.
Gelber said the newly heightened concern about government corruption in South Florida means chances for action in Tallahassee are good.
"There's some measure of political will," he said. "There's a bit of shame that has settled in up here. There is almost a sense that to not do something this year is wrong."
Also on the legislative agenda is a measure sponsored by state Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, that would ask Broward voters if they want to create an inspector general to police public corruption in county government, the school board, independent agencies such as the North Broward Hospital District, and cities, towns and villages.
Palm Beach County may have its first inspector general by May, McAuliffe said. He or she would be devoted to county government.
The two prosecutors previewed their proposal at a Tower Forum breakfast panel on the culture of corruption Thursday. County Commissioner John Rodstrom, one of the attendees, was skeptical about the ability of an inspector general to root out corruption, especially in light of what he said could be a $1 million annual cost.
Satz thinks an independent inspector general makes more sense than stationing a branch of the State Attorney's Office at the county Governmental Center. "It's the best money ever spent," he said.
At the Tower Forum, Satz gave a preview of the legislation he and McAuliffe drafted, and both provided details in later interviews.
The measure, they said, would create a Florida version of the federal honest services fraud law.
The U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether to strike down the federal law as unconstitutionally vague because its targets claim the statute doesn't spell out just what conduct is prohibited. McAuliffe and Satz said their proposal avoids any potential constitutional problem by specifying prohibited conduct.
They do that by making it a crime to willfully fail to disclose the conflict.
"We want to avoid the downsides of that [federal] law, but capture the corruption by a more surgical approach," McAuliffe said. "We're trying to get at what's corrupt, criminal in nature, but not captured in a quid pro quo."
Gelber, who prosecuted corrupt officials when he was an assistant U.S. attorney, said enactment of the proposed law wouldn't be a magic bullet.
"Don't think for a second [that if] you pass a statute you're going to eliminate corruption," he said. "You have human frailty everywhere."
Anthony Man can be reached at email@example.com or 954-356-4550. Read the legislation at SunSentinel.com/browardpolitics