Institutional Corruption

Guest Correspondence


In recent years, Florida has been cited as a leader in political corruption by various watchdog and news organizations, including Integrity Florida. But how exactly do we define corruption? In Sarasota County, public officials take offense and claim our local government is not corrupt, because questionable practices are either not against the law, or because there has been no quid pro quo exchange. Is that really a fair definition of corruption?

According to Zephyr Teachout, author of Corruption in America, the founding fathers set the bar much higher and were focused on ensuring the public interest prevailed over private interests. Improper influence and professional lobbying were considered contrary to public policy—some states even outlawed lobbying.  They set limits on the power of appointment and the number of positions that members of Congress could simultaneously hold. They also required that government take private property only for public use, and that it provide fair compensation when doing so.

Sarasota County’s collective eyebrows were raised in 2014, when a sitting County Commissioner accepted a position acting as Executive Director of the Argus Foundation, a political lobbying group.  The subsequent public outcry failed to convince either Argus or the County Commissioner to abandon this arrangement. A review of the Supervisor of Elections website shows the Argus Foundation’s history of PAC donations, along with it’s self described “political organization” status.  Attempts to rebrand Argus as something other than a political group insult the intelligence of Sarasotans. Such competing loyalties for a public official would certainly be considered corruption by our founding fathers, according to Teachout’s historical research.

Sarasota County’s decision to surrender public assets or functions to private non-profits is another questionable practice. The Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates, or SANCA, manages the publicly owned Nathan Benderson Park.  SANCA has been plagued by cost overruns, loss of non-profit status and a lawsuit over a dredging contract. SANCA’s budget, funded by Sarasota County taxpayers, operates outside of government procurement rules. 

Another County funded non-profit, Sarasota’s Economic Development Corporation, or EDC, gets over 90 percent of its funding from Sarasota County taxpayers. Another look at the Supervisor of Elections website shows the EDC contributed $4,500 to the Committee for Jobs PAC in 2010. Your tax dollars are PAC dollars? How is that not corrupt? 

Lawrence Lessig, founder of the Edmond J. Safra Research Lab for Ethics, has clearly defined the kind of corruption we are dealing with in Sarasota:  Institutional Corruption. Institutional Corruption “is manifest when there is a systemic and strategic influence which is legal, or even currently ethical, that undermines the institution’s effectiveness by diverting it from its purpose or weakening its ability to achieve its purpose, including, to the extent relevant to its purpose, weakening either the public’s trust in that institution or the institution’s inherent trustworthiness.” 

Tax dollars turning into PAC donations, County Commissioners working as lobbyists, SANCA using public money without the accountability of government procurement—these and other County practices work against the public interest.  We have Institutional Corruption in Sarasota County.

Cathy Antunes serves on the boards of the Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations and Sarasota Citizens for Responsible Government.

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