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Dan Gelber on Ethics Reform: Sign Me Up

Not all Florida politicians are gun-shy about ethics reform. Yesterday, after failing to get commitments from three high-profile Republicans, I asked attorney general candidate Dan Gelber whether he would support a bid by the Florida Commission on Ethics to give it more power to go after crooked politicians.

"I would support that," said the Democratic state senator from Miami Beach. No surprise here, considering Gelber's background as a federal prosecutor -- in the U.S. attorney's public corruption division, no less. "This is my trade."

But Gelber wants to go much further by tightening the state's campaign finance restrictions. Those changes run the risk of being struck down by the courts, which must strike a balance between discouraging bribery and protecting speech. Said Gelber:

"There are some donations that are protected speech, but there are plenty that are not governed by the First Amendment."

An example? "Constitutional officers should be limited from controlling and fundraising for these political committees. No public official should receive a $50,000 or $100,000 check. That shouldn't happen -- but it does. And that can be corrupting to the system."

I asked him why the corruption cases being made in Broward County are all federal -- shouldn't the county's state prosecutors have been first to pounce?

Gelber doesn't think so. In his view, the feds are helped by statutes drawn more favorably for indictments. They have more investigative resources. And in the federal courts, prosecutors enjoy more freedoms for making discovery demands in building their cases. Of course, that can also be changed with some help from the Legislature, which has lately been trimming the staff and budgets of local prosecutors.

"They need the tools and the manpower -- that would be pretty important to me," says Gelber. "I don't believe we can be cutting attorneys at a time like this. Corruption cases are extremely labor-intensive. And a prosecutor shouldn't have to decide between a public corruption case and a violent carjacker."

As for the Florida Commission on Ethics, Gelber agreed with Juice's argument that the standard for penalizing politicians should be lowered from the lofty "clear and convincing evidence" that it is today. But he also thinks it's essential that the commission get another item on its wishlist: the right to initiate its own investigations. Currently, it investigates only when prompted by a citizen complaint.

Yet another ethics reform Gelber's running on: changes at the state pension board similar to those being sought in New York by Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. Currently, firms seeking to manage those pension funds can make campaign contributions, which creates a perception of pay for play.

I asked his opinion of the governor's statewide grand jury for corruption: "That's fine, except we've had plenty of grand juries and blue ribbon panels -- their reports sit on the shelf because the Legislature lacks the political will to implement the necessary changes."

Gelber's up against Greenacres Sen. Dave Aronberg in the Democratic primary. The leading Republican contender is Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp.

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Thomas Francis

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