The McKays tread a fine line in arena of conflict
© St. Petersburg Times
Senate President John McKay doesn't like it when anyone writes about his wife, Michelle.
He gets downright angry and says we are "personal and petty."
But his wife has chosen to work as a lobbyist in an arena where McKay holds life or death power over bills that pass through the House and Senate on their way to the governor.
The McKays make a big point of saying that she only lobbies members of the House, not the Senate where he rules. And the Bradenton Republican says he has studiously avoided any contact with bills she has an interest in "to avoid any suggestion of a conflict."
That makes a lot of people roll their eyes. Everyone knows her clients. When Mrs. McKay signed up to represent the state's ophthalmologists, helping a Republican fundraiser, Dr. Alan Mendelsohn, wage war against the optometrists, it helped guarantee passage of a bill that the ophthalmologists desperately wanted.
She also signed up to lobby for Royco Inc., owners of a dialysis business in South Florida that contributes thousands of dollars to legislative candidates and does millions of dollars worth of business in Broward County. They got what they wanted in a health care bill. She also lobbies for a tobacco company that is trying to gain ground against Philip Morris; Celltrax, a Melbourne cell phone technology business; and two hospitals.
Mrs. McKay spends a lot of time in the Senate president's office and attends functions with the Senate president. That means she spends a lot of time with other senators.
She doesn't have to say a word to lobby them. They know. And they don't like it.
House members know, too. And they believe it can help their chances in the Senate if they support a bill she supports.
Four of her six lobbying clients have no other lobbyist in Tallahassee. Are we to believe they decided to communicate with only one chamber of the Legislature?
The Capitol is like a small town where everyone knows everybody else's business. There is little that happens that doesn't instantly become fodder for the grapevine.
House and Senate members who have spoken out about Mrs. McKay's lobbying efforts often find themselves on the receiving end of an irate telephone call from the Senate president.
Reporters get the same kind of call. Don't pick on my wife, he says.
Well, Mr. President, we wouldn't have any cause to write about her if she wasn't lobbying.
And we might be better able to explain her work if she would talk about it. Asked again this week to discuss her work, she declined saying: "I don't see any need, really."
It is hard to find a professional couple in Tallahassee that doesn't run into conflict of interest problems. Many are constantly dancing around the potential for a conflict. Some do it better than others.
In the Senate they have rules that govern the way mere mortals on the staff are supposed to live. Among them is an out and out prohibition against working for the Senate and being related to a lobbyist. McKay says he was unaware of the rule.
If it is important to keep this kind of distance between Senate staff and lobbyists, some think it is even more important to have distance between the Senate president and a lobbyist.
Now this might seem unfair in a world where wives should be able to do their own thing, but this is the system into which the McKays voluntarily entered.
Some legislators are embarrassed by the situation and say it has made life difficult. Others openly questioned a health care bill passed last week.
McKay has repeatedly denied having anything to do with the bill. But Rep. Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, and others say McKay insisted on the passage of the bill without any amendment as a condition of passing other bills.
McKay says anyone who says that is "out and out lying."
McKay would have an easier time explaining if the bill didn't help several of his wife's clients. And it would be easier still if he followed the rules he expects his own staff to follow.
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
Times columns today
From the Times State news desk