TALLAHASSEE — Even as legislators struggle with a $2 billion budget shortfall, more than $800 million in debt is owed Florida taxpayers - IOUs piled up by businesses, individuals and even a few politicians.
State records obtained by The Palm Beach Post show that fees, fines and court-ordered payments - some dating back years - are frequently ignored by those owing money to the state.
The chances of these scofflaws getting caught?
Figures show that as of 2009-10, Florida's collection agencies had recovered just $76.3 million, or 11.1 percent, of the $686.9 million they were chasing. The state accumulated $197.9 million more in IOUs in 2010-11, but can't yet say how much of that has been collected.
That leaves the state holding the bag for as much as $808.5 million.
"The taxpayer winds up stuck with the tab," said Bill Newton, executive director of the Florida Consumer Action Network. "These fines are supposed to pay for cleaning up polluted water, help people recover money lost to white-collar criminals or punish someone who did wrong so they don't do wrong again.
"Instead, these guys get away with it. They just skate."
With lawmakers scrambling to find cash for schools, health programs and social services facing a sixth straight year of budget cuts, critics say they are increasingly angry that the Sunshine State serves as a deadbeat's paradise.
"Unfortunately, in the real world, people walk away from obligations every day," said Barry Krischer, a former Palm Beach County state attorney. "But sometimes you're giving people a false sense of confidence that the state is cracking down on bad characters, when it's really not."
Top debtor starts over
Krischer was victimized 15 years ago by one of the state's top debtors, former Palm Beach County Democratic Party Chairman Ted Brabham.
Brabham was convicted of conspiring to unseat Krischer to help a friend's client, who was seeking leniency in a DUI manslaughter case. Brabham collected $156,000 in illegal campaign contributions, records show. But the elections scheme unraveled and Brabham spent five months in jail on bribery and other charges, lost his law license and still owes the Florida Elections Commission $468,197 for violations.
Brabham hasn't dropped out of sight. He's moved to Texas - and reinvented himself as an evangelist and concert pianist.
On his website, tedbrabham.com, he has a question-and-answer section. To the question of his biggest regret, he says, "Not pursuing a career in gospel music before age 40."
Speaking to The Post, Brabham said he hasn't been contacted by the state. But he conceded that officials will never see the money he owes.
"I made a bad mistake, and I have paid dearly," Brabham said from his home in Atlanta, Texas. "But I don't have a half a million dollars to pay. If they want to come after me, good luck to them."
Others owing hundreds of thousands of dollars to the state include developers, health care companies and real estate sales professionals.
Some businesses that owe the state have folded in a tough economy; others face criminal charges. Still more have simply managed to disappear from view.
Fleeing to Thailand
That's what Todd Teal did. He owes the state $6.4 million in fines and fees.
Teal, who operated out of a Marco Island post office box, was accused by the Florida attorney general in 2005 of running a real estate title scam that made him $1 million and victimized hundreds of Florida property owners.
Teal's most recent address: Thailand, where state efforts to pursue him have come up cold.
State leaders concede improvement is needed but offer few solutions.
"Any organization that is squeezing its resources to try to meet critical needs looks for receivables to collect," said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who's in line to become Senate president after next fall's elections. "We ought to try to collect. Sadly, sometimes during the good times you extend these receivables further than you should, and they become harder to collect."
Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, a former legislator and Palm Beach County bank executive, is responsible for most of the debt-chasing, which is distributed among four national collection firms.
"We have a real opportunity for improvement," Atwater conceded.
This month, the state wrote off $110.5 million in debt as most likely uncollectable.
About one-third of the abandoned cash was unpaid taxes, mostly owed by businesses. Officials speculate many of those businesses aren't paying taxes because they've shut down.
The state also abandons collection efforts because of legal time limits on collecting fines, bankruptcy agreements or the death of those who owe.
But debt the state hasn't settled can infuriate victims struggling to recover from others' professional misdeeds.
Fund offers little relief
Lynn Etienne, 31, a laid-off office worker from Lehigh Acres, said she and her husband in 2006 lost $140,000 to a