Brian Burgess: Ethics complaint underscores argument that CRC headed in the wrong direction

by | Dec 1, 2017

Earlier this week, I pointed out what I see as some dangerous trends developing inside the Constitution Revision Commission: in a nutshell, too many of the proposals appear to be dangerously expanding the constitution’s role in Florida. And the reason, I suggested, is that lobbyists and political operatives have figured out that the Commission represents an opportunity to revive ideas that have already been considered, debated and ultimately rejected by the state legislature.

Yesterday, a group called the American Senior Alliance filed an ethics complaint against Brecht Heuchan, one of the members of the commission, alleging a conflict of interest because he does lobbying work for a law firm that the group says could benefit from a proposal backed by Heuchan. From the release:

Mr. Heuchan is a paid, registered lobbyist for Wilkes & McHugh, a law firm that specializes in personal injury cases against nursing homes. In his capacity as a member of the Constitution Revision Commission,
Mr. Heuchan has filed a proposal that would make it far easier for law firms to sue nursing homes, revoking provisions of a law enacted in 2014 over Mr. Heuchan’s objections on behalf of his client Wilkes & McHugh. Several provisions of Mr. Heuchan’s proposal mirrors policy positions advocated by Wilkes McHugh.
Of course, Heuchan fired back, not about to have his personal integrity impugned by the American Senior Alliance. After calling the ASA a “shill for the nursing home industry,” Heuchan also rejected the suggestion that he violated ethics laws for failing to register as a lobbyist before the CRC:
“That’s laughable and absurd — I am a commissioner,” Heuchan responded. “This is a typical special interest tactic — when you can’t argue the merits, attack the proposer.”
Take away Heuchan’s prior work for Wilkes McHugh, and I’m still confident he would back the same proposal on principle. But regardless of which side one believes, and by all accounts Heuchan is an upstanding citizen who almost certainly believes in the principle behind his proposal, the very existence of this sort of fight is ample evidence that the Constitution Revision Commission is a fertile playground for special interest groups looking to capitalize on the commission’s unique power to refer proposals directly to the ballot.
My beef with this particular proposal is twofold:
  1. I don’t believe the CRC is the proper place for this proposal, especially considering similar language has previously been considered and rejected by the legislature.
  2. Without passing judgement on the merits of the ethics complaint, it appears Heuchan has been previously involved with a similar fight, and his current involvement lends credence to my own reservations about the CRC as noted in my previous post on this subject.
That said, Heuchan promised to discuss this matter with me at length next week, and further cautioned me not to jump to conclusions with respect to the final work product of the CRC. Indeed, on this last count I may have jumped the gun when I wrote:

Imagine the lawsuits that will instantly populate our court system if such an amendment gets passed. Apparently the CRC hasn’t imagined such things yet, because the proposal is still under consideration, when it should have been labeled as special-interest chaff and summarily flushed down the toilet the instant it was brought forward.

To be sure, the CRC has a duty to carefully consider the proposals before them, and Heuchan is right to argue that it’s not entirely fair to criticize the commissioners for proposals that have yet to make it onto the ballot.
But given the fact that the commissioners were all appointed by folks who are all considered to be conservative thinkers, I expected the CRC to serve as a shining example for finding ways to reduce the size of our bloated state constitution, and avoid controversies stemming from proposals that all too closely resemble previously failed efforts, particularly those in which commissioners had previously been engaged as registered lobbyists.


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