State Integrity Investigation
7:54 am
Wed October 3, 2012

State Integrity Investigation Day Two: A Method

  • Hear WLRN-Miami Herald host Phil Latzman's interview with Dan Christensen.

The State Integrity Investigation – a collaboration of Public Radio International, the Center for Public Integrity and WLRN in Miami – is the first comprehensive look at state government  for every state in the country. What’s working? What’s not working? How susceptible is the process to corruption? 

Florida's government, overall, was given a C-minus for its integrity – not great, but still the 18th best in the country.

The State Integrity Index was created by stitching together more than 50 different data sets by more than 50 reporters hired to dig into the inner workings of their own states.

Florida's reporter was investigative journalist Dan Christensen, founding editor of the independent news web site BrowardBulldog.org.

He compiled Florida’s data based on 330 indicators, from insurance regulation to judicial accountability.

“It took about three months, about 400 hours,” Christensen said, “preparation, researching, interviewing all that stuff.”

Christensen, like each researcher for each state, was given a detailed set of 330 questions to answer based on his state’s laws and how well those laws are in practice. “In Florida, we talked to probably between 30 and 35 different people that we had to interview,” Christensen said, “and hours and hours in terms of research, in terms of reading the law, reading reports, reading news stories. That sort of thing.”

A veteran investigative reporter, Christensen wasn’t surprised by much that came out of the research. He explained in an interview with WLRN-Miami Herald host Phil Latzman, though, that as a citizen he was pretty shocked at the weakness of Florida’s major ethics enforcement agencies:

At a time when ethics is so much in the news here, particularly in South Florida and especially in Broward County, there's been so much reform it's sort of a jolt to see that Florida's Commission on Ethics and Judicial Qualifications Commission collectively flunked this test. They're conceived of as independent entities but they really aren't independent. They're funded by general state revenues and are subject to political negotiation in the legislature. That's the first problem here.

They're also either timid by nature or restrained by law. And what I mean is that the ethics commission doesn't have the power to initiate an investigation. They have to wait for someone to file a sworn complaint. On the other hand the JQC, the Judicial Qualifications Commission, can investigate on its own initiative but it rarely does, according to its longtime executive director, Brooke Kennerly. And they both can only recommend penalties. And in the case of the ethics commission, for example, its penalties tend to be trivial. The maximum fine there is $10,000, a relatively small amount that the state-wide grand jury recommended increasing in 2010 to no avail.

Then finally there's the question of how they're constituted. The ethics commission members are all political appointees of the Governor, the House Speaker and the Senate President which, we all know, are quite political figures here, the dominant political figures in the state. The JQCn the other hand is dominated by judges and lawyers with political connections. Those are the essential reasons we scored low on this.