Florida ethics panel refuses to write off fines

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The Florida Ethics Commission refused to write off the latest batch of nearly $100,000 in unpaid fines for financial disclosure violations Friday although they are considered uncollectable, including $1,500 owed by a state representative.

Commissioners said they want to use an ever-growing list of unpaid fines to help persuade lawmakers to let the panel crack down on scofflaw by slapping liens on any real estate they may own. They also voted to make the enforcement of fines their top legislative priority.

"This is a great exhibit for us to have in the next session," Commissioner Matthew Carlucci said. The Jacksonville insurance agent later added, "If we go to the Legislature and we drop this, we are dead in the water."

The commissioners routinely had been writing off old fines after the four-year statute of limitations on those cases expired, but on Friday they decided they'd had enough, noting many on the list are still in office or in state or local government jobs.

That includes Rep. Erik Fresen, a Miami Republican, who was fined $1,500 for a violation in 2003 when he was still a legislative staffer.

"I can't believe that a sitting House member has not paid his fine," said Commissioner Morgan Bentley, a Sarasota lawyer.

Fresen, a land use consultant, did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment that were left at his legislative and professional offices.

Public officials and employees who are required to file annual financial disclosure forms are automatically fined $25 for every day they are late up to a maximum of $1,500, but the commission currently has no way to require the fines be paid.

Earlier this year, the panel asked lawmakers for a law allowing liens on real property, but it never gained traction. Carlucci said Rep. Charles McBurney, R-Jacksonville, has agreed to sponsor a bill when the Legislature convenes in March.

Commissioners reviewed more than a dozen legislative proposals but agreed to make enforcement of the automatic fines their top priority followed by increasing the maximum fine from $10,000 to $25,000. Last year, they proposed a $100,000 cap but reduced it in hopes lawmaker might be more receptive next time.

Commissioner Edwin Scales III, a Key West lawyer, said the panel has become a "paper tiger" because of its inability to get anything passed in the Legislature after submitting wide-ranging proposals in the past. Scales said narrowing the focus may give the panel a better chance of getting something passed.

Outgoing Chairman Robert Sniffen, a Tallahassee lawyer, said he also was worried about public perception if the panel wrote off the uncollected fines. It would give the appearance the commission "threw in the towel" although the real story is that public officials and employees were flaunting the law, he said.

Unpaid fines are turned over to collection agencies, but they halt their efforts if they are unable to obtain payment after the four-year limit expires.

Bentley said he was "a little bit gobsmacked" that the agencies cannot collect fines from violators who still are on the public payroll.

The commission also elected Susan Horovitz Maurer, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer, as its new chairwoman and Bentley as vice chairman, succeeding Maurer.

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