I’ve never thought much of Chris Dorworth.
Back when he was a legislator, he was a proven deadbeat — and a hypocrite, to boot.
He didn’t pay his mortgage. He blasted through tollbooths without paying. He violated election rules and wouldn’t pay his fine until the state threatened to sic a collections agency on him.
And he did all this while lecturing others about the need to live within their means … and while traveling to places such as Las Vegas with money from special interests that needed legislative favors.
Dorworth represented pretty much everything that’s wrong in Florida politics. So when voters in Seminole County tossed this aspiring House speaker out of office, I applauded.
That said, I have trouble applauding the prosecution of Dorworth (who’s now a lobbyist) for his role in the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority scandal.
I know, it feels weird. It’s like watching “The Little Mermaid” and suddenly feeling sympathy for the Sea Witch when she sinks permanently beneath the stormy seas.
I’m just not sure yet whether Dorworth deserves to drown. For this, anyway.
Some informed observers — experts, I trust — say he absolutely does, and that State Attorney Jeff Ashton is delivering an overdue wake-up call to the business-as-usual corruption.
Still, part of the reason Dorworth’s prosecution gives me pause is that it’s unprecedented.
See, Dorworth has been charged with violating Florida’s “Government in the Sunshine” laws — meant to ban public officials from discussing public business in secret.
Only, here’s the thing: Dorworth’s not a public official. And experts say no private citizen has ever been charged with breaking this law.
The state’s accusation is essentially that Dorworth acted as a go-between — a “conduit” who passed messages between two board members, who were also charged with this misdemeanor crime.
And the state says that aiding and abetting is just that. It doesn’t matter whether you’re helping a hoodlum steal a TV or helping public officials break the “Sunshine” laws.
Florida’s First Amendment Foundation agrees.
The nonprofit concedes the case appears to be a first. But lead counsel Jon Kaney argues that “if Dorworth did in fact aid and abet the violation, he can be charged as an aider and abettor. It makes no difference that the crime is a mere misdemeanor.”
Wrong, says Dorworth’s attorney, Richard Hornsby, who says the reason there’s no precedent is because what Dorworth did wasn’t a crime.
Hornsby’s 32-page motion to dismiss argues that Dorworth has a First Amendment right to say whatever he wants — even telling public officials how they should vote and how other officials are voting.
It says the First Amendment even “protects speech advocating criminal activity” and that right doesn’t disappear just because it “may appear unseemly that Mr. Dorworth possessed political access that other private citizens lacked.”
In other words: His behavior may be scummy, but not illegal. (Lobbyists everywhere must be proud.)
Ashton would not discuss the case, because it was pending. But his argument seems to be pretty simple: People who help facilitate crimes are complicit — regardless of whether they are a common street thug or a high-paid lobbyist. I like that logic.
Dorworth’s strongest argument may be that he is being selectively prosecuted — that lobbyists and others often have these kind of private conversations without prosecution.
I think he has a point. Still, when I was kid, my father used to tell me: If the best defense you’ve got is that everyone else does it, too, you should probably just shut up.
What’s clear is that this case has the potential to change the face of lobbying throughout Florida.
That might be a good thing. I like that Ashton takes open government seriously — more so than most prosecutors. Our laws are only as strong as those who enforce them.
But I also agree with Dorworth’s attorney that laws should be uniformly enforced.
So if the state is treading new ground to finally put lobbyists on notice that they’re not above the law, we could all applaud. But the rules have to apply to everyone — not just the guy who’s easy to root against.