It’s Not About Fairness

Senate President Don Gaetz took pains in an editorial last week (‘Revolving Door’ editorial fails fairness test, Northwest Florida Daily News, 22 Sep13) to defend his Chief of Staff, Chris Clark, who earned $400,000 working as a political consultant during his time off from working for the Senate President.

He made it clear he considered such a relationship neither illegal nor unethical, and welcomes future criticism.  “It’s a practice that Democrats and Republicans have used without any serious problem that I’m aware of,’’ said Gaetz.

Indeed, no one can object to a person using their wits to earn a living, especially when it is neither unethical nor illegal.  Of course, in this case we are talking about someone who is supposed to deal with people as a chief of staff of the Senate President that at other times of the year he may deal with as clients.  That’s a tough trick to pull off and not be doing special favors for someone.  In addition, it begs the question, but for his connections to the Senate President and as Chief of Staff would Mr. Clark make the hefty sums he does consulting?  I speculate that he would not.

Senator Gaetz is ignoring an obvious problem between government, access to power, and money. In the public eye behavior like this leads to a range of questions about government service as a means to private wealth, impartiality in government, and whether it is who you know not what you know that counts in this world.  Should Mr. Clark benefit financially both being an active public servant and at the same time privately consulting using the knowledge and contacts he makes as a public servant?  Most people, instinctively, would say no.

There is little doubt Senator Gaetz thinks he should.  The relationship between Gaetz and Clark is a close one.  According to the Tampa Bay Times, 31 August 13, he was Don Gaetz’s campaign manager in the 2005 Florida Senate race (paid a salary of $128,000 too), was given large chunks of the year off from 2009 to 2012 to consult for other Republican campaigns in the State, and immediately thereafter had his state salary increased from $76,068 to $150,000, “making him the highest paid staff member of the Florida Legislature.”  The Senator said the increase was justified because Clark “took a significant pay cut when he came to work for me six years ago.”  The favors go further.  After Mr. Clark returned to the Senate from his latest political consulting trail in 2012, Don Gaetz gave him $10,000 as a “win bonus.” He might argue good people are hard to find, and this is the way to get them keep them.

Clearly, Mr. Clark is using his position as a means to private wealth.  For him, working for the Senator is both a public service and a private business that generates as much private revenue as the demand in the market will allow.  Speculating again, I think that can be a lot of money.

Impartiality is also out the window.  Since Mr. Clark seems primarily involved with getting other Republicans elected to office, can anyone that opposes his political clients be sure that they are getting fair treatment when they meet him doing his job in the Senate?  Then again, Senator Gaetz might not have hired him to be impartial, but simply get the administrative job done the way the Senator likes.

Lastly, we see the old adage confirmed, once again, that it is who you know that counts.

Overall, this controversy has said more about Senator Gaetz than it does about Mr. Clark.  Clark works for Gaetz, and the Senator can pay him whatever he wants to pay him. Clark is also a public servant with current and exceptional access to legislative decision makers that he can pass off to clients. He is taking advantage of it with the Senator’s blessing.

Just because the law allows you to do something does not mean you should do it.

One thing is for sure. This isn’t about fairness.

Pete Blome is Chair of the Northwest Florida Libertarian Party and an At-Large Rep for the Libertarian Party of Florida.