TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) -- An attorney for Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos said his client should get no penalty after the lawmaker admitted to violating financial disclosure requirements in a stipulation approved Friday by the state Ethics Commission.
The case now goes to the Senate for a final decision because the ethics panel has no authority to penalize legislators as it can other officials.
"I would strongly advocate on his behalf that no further penalty is required," said Pete Dunbar, a former lawmaker representing Haridopolos. "He has suffered quite enough."
Dunbar, also a former ethics commissioner, said embarrassment and humiliation are sufficient punishment for what he characterized as unintended clerical errors.
The Merritt Island Republican, who did not attend the commission meeting, acknowledged through the stipulation that he violated the Florida Constitution by failing to fully disclose his financial interests for five years from 2004 through 2008.
The errors include failing to disclose earnings from the University of Florida, where he teaches, and real estate investments. He also didn't disclose clients of his business, MJH consulting, and misstated values of his home and mortgage. Addresses of lenders and his employers, including the state, were omitted.
Haridopolos corrected the mistakes after the commission began investigating, saying he failed to thoroughly read and follow directions.
"Basically what you have here is a harassing complaint," Dunbar said.
It was filed by Vero Beach resident Eugene "Bucky" Benson.
"My so-called harassment was to have his disclosures accurately identify his income source," Benson wrote in an e-mailed comment. "Dunbar - a former Ethics chairman - calls those five years of deviant forms 'minor bookkeeping errors'?"
Haridopolos has said he'd be willing to pay the customary fine, but ethics officials said there is none.
Dunbar said that when he was on the panel, it never penalized officials for such disclosure mistakes if they agreed to fix them. At other times the commission has imposed fines of $100 per violation, which in this case would total $500, he said.
When it comes to legislators, though, the commission can only recommend a penalty if the Senate or House asks it to do so.
The panel now will submit a report on the case to the Senate Rules Committee, which could decide to drop it or suggest disciplinary action to the full Senate.
Rules Chairman John Thrasher of St. Augustine, who also chairs the Florida Republican Party, said he'll ask his staff director to review past cases and make a recommendation to the panel.
The commission does not investigate violations on its own but acts only if a member of the public files a complaint, so most errors go unpunished, Dunbar said. He said the number of complaints increases dramatically during election campaigns.
"These errors are substantially clerical in nature but violations nonetheless," Dunbar said. "There's no curative, no forgiveness, no almost."
All an official can do is "man up" and correct the mistakes, which is what Haridopolos has done, Dunbar said.
Benson said he obtained disclosures for all lawmakers to determine how many are millionaires. Haridopolos is not, but Benson said he got the courage to file a complaint after being unable to find information about Haridopolos' consulting business.
The Ethics Commission "is a toothless tiger enacted by the Legislature to provide errant legislators with a soft landing," Benson wrote.
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