In 2012, Florida received an ‘F’ on Ethics Enforcement agencies from the Center for Public Integrity. On the overall corruption index, Florida received a C-.
Governor Scott issued an executive order to strengthen the process. The Florida Senate changed the conflict of interest rules for legislators in 2013-14. Bad things keep happening. Is there a legislative cabal, or are some simply insensitive to the public interest? There are stories to tell. One of the worst stories involves a $400,000 ‘loan’ from Doral Academy to Doral College, a non accredited college started on the grounds of Doral Academy charter high school. The idea is to enroll high school students in dual enrollment courses at the college, taught by the charter high school teachers. Evidently, only students from these Academica run charters can enroll. Academica is under federal investigation. The students earn credit that cannot be transferred to any accredited school. The college earns money. Who is involved?
- Manny Diaz, Chair Florida House Sub Committee on Choice and Innovation. Representative Diaz is the dean of Doral College in Miami. Bob Sykes alleges there are other conflicts of interest.
- Senator Anitere Flores, Chair Senate Fiscal Policy Committee, member Senate Appropriations Committee, CEO of Academica affiliated Doral College
- Representative Erik Fresen. Chair of the House Education sub committee on Appropriations. Employee of Civica, a real estate company associated with Academica.
Rep. Fresen was named in the federal investigation due to a potential conflict of interest. He served on the board of an Academica charter school and approved a contract to his real estate firm. He currently has added an amendment to the House version of the charter school bill that would allocate part of local taxes for public school capital outlay funds to charter school facilities. No charges have been filed on that measure.
Representative Marlene O’Toole, who represents The Villages has also been cited for conflict of interest. The Villages runs its own charter schools for its employees’ children. Rep. O’Toole is employed by Take Stock in Children, a non-profit foundation, for which she voted to approve $9 million dollars in funding. She is Chair of the House Education Committee and Vice Chair of the House Education Appropriations Committee. There is no indication that the Villages charter schools were involved in the transaction.
How should Florida conflict of interest laws for legislators be improved? According to the Center for Public Integrity, in law, independent agency or agencies tasked with enforcing state ethics rules should:
- have an independent allocation of budget;
- independently initiate investigations, and
- impose penalties
Florida received a zero rating on those criteria. Florida has an ethics commission, but it only reports its findings. Penalties are determined by the legislature. While subsequent regulations were drafted, they were implemented by rule, not in law.
- Conflicts of interest are now to be disclosed prior to a vote, not afterward. Penalties may be as small as a $1500 fine.
- Voting on a legislation is prohibited if the legislator has a private gain or loss, but not if a relative has a gain or loss. Special private gain or loss is defined to eliminate conflicts of interest when there are only a few people who will benefit from the measure, and if they all benefit the same e.g. each $1 million. Thus, charter schools are a class of activity and do not benefit individuals.
- If there is a conflict, the rule requires proof the person knew about the conflict.
Let’s give credit where credit is due. Proposed bill SB1448 by Senator Legg requires that charter school advisory boards be independent from their management companies. If passed, there could be some improvement, particularly if appointments to the boards were reviewed by school district staff who oversee the charter contracts. Perhaps boards could curb the excessive payments for facilities and other irregularities. Board members would also be required to observe conflict of interest laws. There is always hope that avoiding conflict of interest is, in the long run, in everyone’s interest.