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Thursday, March 14, 2013 01:07 pm

Florida makes Illinois look good

Anyone thinking Illinois state government is more screwed up, or more corrupt, than probably any other state in the union should have seen Florida as I did during a recent 10-day visit to the Tampa Bay area.

Reform was to be the theme of the new legislative session in Tallahassee. The Senate president and House Speaker both wanted to make ethics reform a top priority. As Tampa Bay Times columnist Daniel Ruth put it: “They want to clean up Tallahassee’s well-earned reputation for being more scruple-challenged than Rod Blagojevich with a cell phone in his hand.”

Even as more and more ethical issues filled newspages, a three-year-old indictment of Jim Greer, the former state chairman of the Republican Party, had Floridians anticipating hours of blood-letting testimony as the trial was set to begin.

It had all the buildup of a Rod Blagojevich trial. In this case it was the whole Republican Party about to be laid bare. Former Gov. Charlie Christ, who had handpicked Greer, was among those scheduled to be witnesses on criminal charges of money laundering and grand theft of $125,000 in party funds.

For three years Greer had promised a trial that would embarrass a lot of people. Then a new and mysteriously-financed high-priced criminal defense lawyer showed up the night before trial and Greer changed his mind and pleaded guilty to five felony charges that will undoubtedly mean prison time. The charges were that he had secretly formed a company called Victory Strategies to do fundraising for the party – with billings topping $200,000 for such things as polling which was never conducted. It was charged that he and his former executive director – whom he named company manager – then divided such fees.

Headlines about the lavish lifestyle Greer had developed during his years as GOP leader were topped by a so-called men-only “Tropical Frolic” in the Bahamas for some contributors of $4.4 million. The kicker on the Bahamas trip were suggestions (supposedly in a sealed Florida Department of Law Enforcement report) of possible witness tampering (like blackmail?) that made references to women – some possibly prostitutes – seen on a golf cart used by one of the organizers. With a trial now eliminated, headlines became, Who put up the dough to “hush the GOP scandal?”

The long buildup to the Greer trial had drawn attention to a practice in Florida that Jesse Jackson Jr. could have used had he been from the Sunshine State. The man who blew the whistle on Greer’s scheme, after having worked with him at the state party offices, spoke out in February to assail the legislature’s leaders for not cracking down on a 10-year-old practice allowing legislators to create political slush funds known as Committees for Continuous Existence.

They were supposedly a reform device designed to prevent state representatives and senators from accepting meals, travel and entertainment from lobbyists. They could accept donations to the CCEs from which they can write checks to themselves for any and all kinds of things – all beyond inspection!

In something apparently stolen from Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan’s playbook, Allen Cox, the former vice chairman of the GOP, said, “It’s the same old money-laundering and money-hiding approach that’s been in place as long as I can remember in Florida politics.” He referred to the proposed 2013 approach to let the House Speaker and Senate president dole out lobbyists’ campaign contributions to incumbents

Term limiting seems to make legislators ripe for economic self-improvement, and having privatization the big thing in state government in Florida apparently feeds corruption.

When two recent murders and a rapist brought headlines to privately run corrections  work-release facilities, critics pointed out lax oversight and a 47 percent escape rate,  higher than in similar facilities run by the Department of Corrections. On public safety, opined the Tampa Bay Times, “there is always more to the equation than just dollars and cents.”

Even governors have complained of appropriations insertions directly traceable to lobbyists. It helps to explain why there were 4,925 lobbyists registered last year to lobby executive agencies and 3,235 to lobby the 160-member General Assembly. One former Speaker of the House – not Marco Rubio – went so far as to form his own lobbying firm months before leaving office, setting it up almost across from the capitol, and started soliciting clients while in office. Ah, Florida! You make Illinois look good.

A newspaperman for 28 years, Burnell Heinecke of Springfield worked from 1953 to 1978 covering state government, 23 years with the Chicago Sun-Times. He was State Capitol Bureau chief from 1966 through 1975. He later worked in state government from 1979 through 1991. 
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