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Lapsed Ethics

When Gov. Jeb Bush took office in 1999, he promised to clean up our singularly seedy state with tougher anticorruption laws. The new administration created a special task force that made recommendations in early 2000 to free up the Florida Commission on Ethics to investigate politicians of its own volition and stiffen penalties for unethical acts.

But Bush failed to follow through on his promise. Ethics enforcement in Florida was a joke when he entered office, and it remains a laugher today. Bribery is still, in the eyes of state law, roughly equivalent to poaching a crab trap. Several bills have been proposed, only to stall in the legislature. The debacle amounts to one of Bush's most stunning political failures.

So when a spot recently opened up on the nine-member ethics commission, you might have thought Bush would have gone out of his way to pick a strong government watchdog. You might have thought that in this age of Enron and WorldCom, the governor would have chosen someone outside his ring of business buddies. You would at least think he'd avoid someone with a glaring record for sacrificing ethics and lining his own pocket while shilling for corporations.

And you would be wrong.

On August 19, Bush very quietly announced the appointment of John Grant, a Tampa attorney and former Republican state senator. As far as I can tell, the only media attention came in a Miami Herald column that listed Grant's ties to the extreme religious right. But I'm more concerned about the former senator's ties to the insurance companies' might.

During his 14 years in the state Senate that ended in 2000, Grant routinely treated the state Capitol like a cheap motel room where he pocketed some extra change while servicing his business buddies. At the time, he knew all about ethics laws -- he was a member of the first Commission on Ethics, serving from 1974 to 1978. Apparently, he also learned what he could get away with.

My favorite description of Grant comes from an oft-quoted Florida Democratic Party leader named Terrie Brady who called him "ethically tawdry" in 1995. I also like this lead sentence in a Tampa Tribune editorial from March 29, 1996: "Why does Sen. John Grant's name keep popping up in connection with ethical dilemmas?"

I'll tell you why -- because he's cut from the same cloth as the governor. Grant is absolutely and unapologetically pro-business. After spending 90 minutes on the phone with him last week, I was left with a certain respect for the man -- he talks straight, is unapologetic about his right-wing Christian and pro-business views, and he did a few good things while he was in office.

But that doesn't change the fact that he routinely shilled for business interests at the expense of consumers. His day job was with the Tampa law firm of Harris, Barrett, Mann & Dew, which represented more than a dozen insurance companies, including Prudential, CIGNA, and Florida's own Bankers Insurance Co. From 1994 through 1996, he chaired the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee, where he helped pass legislation that was particularly beneficial to Bankers Insurance.

For instance, he backed a bill that gave a $100 "bonus" to insurance companies for every policy they took from the statewide insurance pool created after Hurricane Andrew called the Joint Underwriting Association. It was a sweet deal for Bankers, which took out some 100,000 JUA policies -- $10 million sweet.

What Grant didn't talk about publicly was that he was serving on the Bankers board of directors at the time and received $1500 a year from the company (not including the fees his law firm collected). After the relationship was exposed, Grant resigned from his position on the board, but his law firm kept working for Bankers. Despite Grant's help, Bankers managed to lose $16 million in JUA contracts to smaller companies in 1995. The following year, however, Grant sponsored legislation that gave the company the inside track for $60 million in state work. How? By creating requirements for bidders that excluded many of those smaller businesses.

By this time, Grant's two-timing had gotten him bad press across the state. "It doesn't look good...," the Tribune editorialized. "[T]his pattern of behavior appears to be a little more than dubious."

Grant says the new bidding qualifications weren't designed to help Bankers. Rather, they were added to protect consumers from "fly by night" companies, he insists: "It was a good policy, and I would do it again regardless."

While Grant's maneuverings played out on a public stage, Bankers was up to some serious shenanigans behind the scenes. Bankers, it seems, blamed a state insurance official named Kevin McCarty for the loss of those 1995 contracts. So the company hired private investigator Peter Rayner to dig up dirt on McCarty. Rayner tailed the official, illegally wiretapped his phone, and reported back that McCarty is gay. When the phone company discovered the wiretap, a series of court actions and investigations began that continue to this day.

Rayner was convicted for the illegal wiretap, and McCarty collected $2.25 million from Bankers in a legal settlement. "The insurance industry didn't want to bear the risk -- they wanted it borne by the state, and they wanted all the lucrative contracts," says McCarty, who is now Florida's deputy insurance commissioner. "I was interested in protecting consumers instead of the industry."

It's refreshing to hear, considering the cabal that is running our state these days (think Bush, House Speaker Tom Feeney, the rural Republican hard-liners from upstate, and the Miami gang of ideologically stunted Cuban conservatives). No wonder McCarty was singled out by Bankers.

There is no evidence that Grant had anything to do with that dirty piece of Nixonian espionage, but an administrative complaint filed just last year by the state Department of Insurance against Bankers alleges that Grant and other directors failed to investigate the company properly when they learned of the wiretapping. In effect, Grant was accused of failing to hold his own company to a high ethical standard.

Grant denies he ever knew about the illegal actions while he served on the board. "Not a single outside director was given knowledge about it," Grant says. "I would have told them it was a dumb thing to do, and I was shocked when I found out later."

He points out that he has never been the subject of a complaint to the ethics commission and that, when he requested an opinion from the commission about the $1500 from Bankers, he was cleared. Members reasoned that Grant didn't actively lobby for Bankers and that the money he received accounted for less than 1 percent of his annual income.

Grant, however, didn't ask for the ethics opinion until after the media exposed that he had received the money. And the commission's decision was dubious at best: He was ruled innocent, in effect, because he was rich and because he didn't lobby himself. The commission didn't explain what the definition of lobbying would be in the context of Grant, who strongly supported and voted for legislation favorable to Bankers.

This is the kind of flawed and pandering opinion the ethics commission has become famous for. For other ridiculous rulings made by the commission, see the cases of Plantation Councilman Jerry Fadgen and Pompano Beach Mayor Bill Griffin. Virtually anybody who has ever fought corruption or truly cares about clean government sooner or later develops an abiding disrespect for the commission, with its toothless, highly political commissioners and its long record of impotence.

After the Bankers' morass, Grant had more ethical controversies. In 1997, a spokesman for then-Florida Insurance Commissioner (and current U.S. Sen.) Bill Nelson told newspapers that Grant had made an unusual request: While chairman of the Banking and Insurance Committee, he'd asked Nelson to direct state legal work to his law firm. Nelson's spokesman, Dan McLaughlin, reported that Nelson felt the request was improper and denied it.

Grant says he didn't ask for any new contracts -- he just wanted to know why the insurance department had stopped assigning cases to his law firm, which, it turned out, had earned $508,000 in legal work from the insurance department while he served in the Senate.

Tawdry is right.

But Grant skated through these various crises and embarrassments and, ultimately, found in Jeb Bush his political doppelgänger. After the new governor took office, Bush began assaulting regulatory measures and giving breaks to business buddies who had filled his campaign coffers. In Grant, Bush found not only a staunch economic ally but a key member of the Republican base -- the Tampa senator was a card-carrying member of the Religious Right, a darling of the Christian Coalition. He is famous for his in-their-face criticism of gays, his bid to install the Ten Commandments in every classroom and courtroom in the state, and his failed bill to ban nude sunbathing.

So when Grant left office in 2000, Bush quickly appointed him executive director of the Public Guardianship Office, which oversees guardians who handle the affairs of the elderly and disabled who can't care for themselves. "Throughout his distinguished career, Sen. Grant has demonstrated a strong passion for upholding the law and preserving justice for all our people," Bush said at the time.

Yeah, and he should have added that Grant, who picked up a $75,000 state salary, has a record of giving insurance people even more justice than the rest of us. Are you starting to see how cynical and full of BS this man we call governor really is?

And Bush -- whose office didn't respond to my request for comment -- must have forgotten about gays and lesbians when he praised Grant's love of justice. In 1997, Grant threatened to cut funding for the University of South Florida when the great -- and gay -- diver Greg Louganis was slated to speak at the school. Grant wrote that the Louganis "presentation represents moral decadence and is an embarrassment to the university community." For Grant, Louganis wasn't an Olympic hero -- he was just another pervert.

Now that he's an ethics commissioner, I feel sorry for a commissioner from, say, Wilton Manors who has an ethical problem. But Grant swears he won't let his personal feelings about gays or his pro-business Republican political loyalties get in the way of fairness. "The law is the law, and I'm going to interpret the law whether it hurts or helps a Republican," he says. "And why would a person's sexual orientation have anything to do with an ethical complaint? Nobody can check their personal opinions at the door, but you have to be a person of character and decide you will not let those personal opinions affect your legal decision."

That's fine, but his ideas about ethics laws already show a clear bias. While we spoke on the phone, he complained that conflict-of-interest laws are "interpreted the wrong way." He believes that laws forbidding public officials from privately profiting through official actions "apply more to administrative agencies than to those involved in passage of law, to sole individuals as opposed to a mass of people voting."

To translate that for you, he's saying that ethics laws often don't apply to politicians. In most cases, he says, they are meant for government administrators who handle the contracts. Why? Because politicians vote with other politicians, so you can't single them out.

As if that doesn't prove that Grant is an ethical contortionist, capable of bending over backward with the best of them, he also says it's OK for politicians to profit personally from votes and official actions as long as they aren't the only ones to benefit. He uses this curious logic to defend his work at Bankers. "It wasn't a conflict because it didn't help Bankers specifically but a class of businesses of which Bankers was a part," he says.

I'm afraid we're about to read some very interestingly parsed decisions from the ethics commission. But it's not too late -- Grant's old buddies in the senate still need to confirm the nomination. Will somebody please send this column to Bush's office and tell him he needs to find a new nominee?

It won't be hard, governor. All it would take is a sense of decency and one carefully penned "Dear John" letter.

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