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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.

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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman

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