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Florida bill would increase penalties for illegal lobbying

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(The Center Square) — A Florida lawmaker aims to add more penalties for public officials breaking the law by lobbying lawmakers while also implementing term limits for members of the Commission of Ethics.

Senate Bill 7014 is a general bill by the Senate Committee on Elections and Ethics, which was reported favorably Wednesday, and was presented by Committee Chair Sen. Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills.

According to Burgess, the bill would amend specific Florida statutes to increase fines for those who violate certain lobbying provisions — specifically, public officials are prohibited from lobbying — a violation of the state Constitution.

Currently, fines are restricted to a maximum fine of $10,000 but would be increased to a maximum fine of $20,000.

The bill would create timeframes for investigations into alleged violations conducted by the commission while specifying that complaints or referrals would have to be sufficient for the commission to undertake a preliminary investigation.

The bill would also allow candidates running for public office to recover costs in attorney fees for defending against maliciously filed ethics complaints.

According to the bill’s text, the commission would be appointed by the governor, who can appoint five members in total, the Senate president would appoint two members, and the House speaker would also appoint two members. The Senate president and House speaker must not appoint more than one member of the same political party, and no more than five members can be from the same political party at any time.

The commission would also require the vote of at least six of the nine commission members before deviating from a council recommendation. Furthermore, the bill stipulates that the commission would no longer have the authority to hold a formal hearing to determine disputed material facts if passed.

Burgess stated that the overarching principles are to set expectations, to provide some closure for the accused and the person alleging in the complaint, and to provide some certainty and uniformity in standards, conforming to other practices consistent in other agencies that conduct investigations.

“I believe that instituting these timelines and procedures within this bill really does put in some substantial change, and some material closure to those who are undergoing the process, and help achieve a recommendation through the commission in a much more swift fashion,” Burgess said.

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