Convictions May Bring Tighter Ethics Laws

Article excerpt

TALLAHASSEE -- There is one clear lesson from the federal convictions of former state Reps. Bo Johnson and Randy Mackey: If you accept big fees from companies seeking legislation, you better pay your income taxes.

But it is still unclear what, if anything, the Legislature will do about the larger question of whether such fees should be accepted in the first place.

In a part-time Legislature where the annual salary is $26,388, many are reluctant to put too great a restriction on outside sources of income.

Nonetheless, legislative leaders say there should be some tightening of ethics laws in the wake of the Johnson and Mackey cases.

While Johnson and Mackey were convicted of failing to report income, there was no proof that they did anything illegal in exchange for the money.

Their cases, however, have raised questions about conflicts of interest from legislators' business interests.

House Speaker John Thrasher, R-Orange Park, said he has asked Rules Chairman Joe Arnall, R-Jacksonville Beach, to look into strengthening disclosure laws.

Thrasher said he particularly wants to close a loophole that allows a legislator whose term ends in November to avoid disclosing finances for that year.

Sen. Burt Saunders, R-Naples, said his Ethics and Elections Committee plans similar action.

"It will make sure that situations we've been reading about are less likely to occur," Saunders said.

Saunders said his committee will resurrect a bill that failed this year that would require greater disclosure of business dealings and allow the Ethics Commission to initiate investigations instead of waiting for a complaint.

Arnall said the Legislature may need to require lawmakers' spouses to report their sources of income. Johnson's and Mackey's wives received fees from companies that had an interest in legislation.

Requiring more information in state financial disclosure forms would help only if the legislators accurately reported all of their income, however.

Mackey did not initially report his income from Anderson Columbia, a Lake City paving company, in his state forms. He later reported it in amended forms filed after the Internal Revenue Service began its investigation.

Johnson reported some of his outside income on his 1992 and 1993 financial disclosure forms, but not all that was attributed to him by the IRS.

He was not required to report any of the payments to his wife or the ones that he received in 1994, the year he left the Legislature.

Johnson and his wife were convicted of not paying federal income taxes on more than $400,000 in income received between 1992 and 1996. The last two years of that period Johnson was not in the Legislature.

Rep. Steve Wise, R-Jacksonville, said the publicity over the fees paid to Johnson and Mackey may make legislators more circumspect in the future.

He said such incidents feed a public perception that all lawmakers are dishonest. …