Known more for its sunny beaches and magical theme parks, Florida is getting attention this month for a less flattering reason: corruption.
Florida leads the nation in federal corruption convictions, according to a report released in early June by the non-profit watchdog group Integrity Florida.
From 2000 to 2010, Florida had 781 such convictions, which include violations like misuse of public money, vote buying and conflict of interest crimes. But that number, which comes from Department of Justice data analyzed by Integrity Florida, doesn't tell the full story, some say.
When considering population, Florida ranked 19th in the country for corruption convictions, according to a University of Illinois in Chicago study released this year that crunched data from 1976 to 2010. And some say the high number of convictions could be the result of the state's Sunshine Law — one of the most expansive open records laws in the nation — or prosecutors who are aggressive in ethics violation cases.
The University of Illinois study found Florida had 0.94 public corruption convictions per 10,000 population between 1976 and 2010, good for 19th in the country. The District of Columbia led the nation with 16.70 convictions per 10,000 population, followed by Louisiana with 2.00 and Mississippi with 1.89.
Jim Nowlan, who co-authored the University of Illinois study, said there are limitations to any data set measuring corruption. For instance, his data accounts for factors like population and growth, but can't measure qualitative factors like the amount of resources the U.S. Attorney's Office had in pursuing the corruption cases.
"In one period of time, the U.S. Attorney for several districts in Florida might be very aggressive, or non-aggressive, for public corruption convictions," Nowlan said. "What I'm getting at is, you don't want to read too much into this or parse it too finely. ... None of it is perfect."
Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, said Florida's large population — it's the country's fourth most populous state — means it often is at the top of national statistics. And the state's open records laws could help expose corruption, thereby bumping up the ranking, he said.
"Florida's Sunshine Laws are leading the nation for transparency and public access," Richter said. "For example, I don't know of any other state that has a program like Sunburst where any citizen can read every email from their governor and his top staff."
Although public corruption cases typically are expensive and time-intensive, they remain "paramount as one of the priorities in a democratic society," said Robert O'Neill, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida.
"Prosecutors here tend to be pretty vigilant," he said. "Law enforcement tends to work these types of cases, and I think the courts are tough on them when they're brought before them."
Dan Krassner, an author of Integrity Florida's analysis, said his organization accepts those factors as possible explanations for Florida's high ranking but he remains concerned about the gross number of convictions.
Imagine if Florida led the country in murder convictions, he said. Although that could indicate good sleuthing by law enforcement, "that would still be a problem for our state's reputation, and an issue policy makers would want to address."
The Middle District of Florida, which includes Collier and Lee counties, had 248 federal corruption convictions in the 11-year period analyzed by Integrity Florida. But getting numbers specific to Southwest Florida is difficult, in part because the Middle District includes large cities like Jacksonville, Orlando and Tampa.
The most notable corruption scandal in recent Collier County history was the Stadium Naples case, in which 10 local public officials and businessmen were found guilty of swapping bribes to help get a proposed $100 million golf stadium built in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Since then, Collier amended its ethics code, which now requires officials to report all gifts, even though Florida law doesn't require disclosures for gifts less than $100. Collier County Judge Mike Carr, who helped draft the changes as a state ethics committeeman, said he believes corruption is cyclical and is far less rampant today than it has been historically.
"Ten years ago, Collier County was at the sipping cup of corruption; now, I think it's as honest as any place on earth," he said.
Around the same as the Stadium Naples scandal came to light, a two-year internal investigation by the Collier County Sheriff's Office found two deputies in the Immokalee district were abusing their badge. Jim Sanders pleaded guilty in 2001 to taking money from gambling tables at illegal Immokalee gaming houses in exchange for not making arrests or shutting the gambling businesses down.
A federal judge found his colleague, Glendell Edison, guilty of distributing $500,000 worth of cocaine and taking payouts from drug dealers in exchange for protecting them from arrest. Edison later pleaded guilty to state charges saying he once saw three children tied up behind a meat slicer at an Immokalee store, but took more than $4,000 from the boys' parents in exchange for not reporting the abuse.
The case built by internal affairs investigators helped secure the indictments against the men. Sheriff Kevin Rambosk said the role of the internal affairs bureau remains important today.
"Any complaint, no matter the level or severity, is intaken by the agency," he said. "We want people to know that we are open to both compliments and complaints, and that we'll follow it through to a resolution."
Carr, the Collier County judge, said new countywide regulations have birthed a "different climate" where officials are more aware of habits that could become corrupt.
"There's a saying that 'All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.' That saying is as true now as it was then," Carr said. "Corruption doesn't say, 'I'm corruption, and welcome me.' It sneaks up on you with good ol' boys, we're-just-trying-to-be-nice, we're friends.
"If people know that you've got someone looking over your shoulder, it makes it easier to stay honest."