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    Lobbyist sells hot product: Access

    Michael Corcoran from Zephyrhills forged a friendship with a politician on his way up: the House speaker.

    By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 16, 2003


    TALLAHASSEE -- When Hillsborough County needed a lobbyist to fight for legislative approval for a health care tax for the poor, one name rose above the rest: Michael Corcoran.

    When Miami needed a lobbyist to persuade House Speaker Johnnie Byrd to support a parking surcharge, the choice again was obvious: Michael Corcoran.

    "He has a lot of access to the speaker," said Fatima Perez, who oversees Miami's lobbyists.

    He's not a lawyer, an ex-legislator or a top aide to a governor. But among thousands of lobbyists in Tallahassee, Corcoran has rocketed to prominence for one reason: The 35-year-old campaign strategist from Zephyrhills has unmatched access to the inscrutable Byrd, one of the state's most powerful politicians.

    "Johnnie is my friend," Corcoran said. "He's a great guy."

    Byrd said Corcoran "helped teach me the ropes" as a House freshman six years ago. He said he relies on Corcoran for political advice "in a big way. . . . He knows the process, inside and out."

    They forged a friendship seven years ago in Plant City. Byrd was running for the House and Corcoran was a Republican operative, helping his party take over the House for the first time in more than a century. Under a broiling sun, Corcoran and his wife, Jessica, spent weekends pounding the pavement and promoting Byrd.

    "It's not fun at 2 o'clock in the afternoon to be walking door-to-door in 90-degree weather," Corcoran said. "You do that and you develop a bond."

    Both Corcorans worked for Byrd as legislative aides. When Byrd ran for speaker, Corcoran raised money and promoted Republican candidates loyal to Byrd. Corcoran launched a campaign firm, Capitol Consulting, and Byrd became its No. 1 client for direct mail, TV ads and printing.

    "His wife was Johnnie's aide, the keeper of the calendar, and Mike was the political adviser. They go way back," said Pat Roberts, a lobbyist for the Florida Association of Broadcasters. "I wouldn't say it's father and son. It's more like brothers."

    As Byrd raced up the House ladder, Corcoran offered advice and hard work. He set up the campaign golf tournament or raised money for Byrd's campaign and his speakership PAC, the Committee for Responsible Government. The PAC paid Corcoran for consulting work.

    "He's a trusted adviser to the speaker. That's a good thing," said Brian Ballard, a lobbyist who has hired Corcoran because of his ties to House Republican freshmen. Ballard and Corcoran represent some of the same clients, and Corcoran leases space from Ballard, who was a top aide to former Gov. Bob Martinez.

    * * *

    Corcoran may look like an overnight success in the Capitol. But he has spent years laboring in the vineyard of party politics.

    "He was the guy on a small plane in an afternoon thundershower, flying around, doing fundraising for individual members, freshman members," Ballard said.

    When Corcoran broke his right hand playing basketball recently, he didn't have to go far for help: One of his political clients, freshman Rep. Ed Homan of Tampa, is an orthopedic surgeon. Sen. Mike Fasano of New Port Richey was a groomsman at Corcoran's wedding.

    Corcoran's experience is the story of the Legislature, where access is a commodity to be bought and sold. Lobbyists buy access with campaign money and time, then cash in after the election, representing clients who need help in the Capitol. People worried about having problems on the Capitol's fourth floor pull out their checkbooks.

    When Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings was Senate president from 1996 to 2000, her close friend, Orlando lobbyist Oscar Juarez, saw his client roster multiply.

    It's a familiar -- and lucrative -- formula.

    Do the math: The USF Medical School's support group will pay Corcoran $50,000 this year. The Southwest Florida Water Management District will pay him $30,000, and Hillsborough will pay him $24,500. Miami is paying him $50,000, as a subcontractor to principal lobbyist Ron Book, steering the city's legislative agenda.

    * * *

    Corcoran's private clients include Peoples Gas System, the St. Joe Co., St. Petersburg Kennel Club, TECO Energy and Verizon. Those fees are not public. He also handles claims bills, in which lawyers enlist lobbyists to persuade lawmakers to order damage awards to people injured by government negligence.

    Byrd dismisses the notion that Corcoran can deliver his support on an issue. "I've got a core set of principles that I go by, and I'm going to do what I'm going to do, regardless of what he does," Byrd said.

    Hiring Corcoran does not ensure success. Two clients, the Alliance for Quality Nursing Home Care and the Florida Water Services Corp., have suffered defeats in the session's first weeks. Both setbacks occurred in the Senate, where Corcoran has less influence.

    Like many lobbyists, Corcoran tries to avoid the spotlight. But it keeps finding him.

    Byrd gave Corcoran's sister Jacqueline, a lawyer and former chief of staff to a California congressman, a $90,000-a-year job in the House majority whip's suite. Four House publicity employees hired by Byrd used Corcoran's name as a reference.

    When Byrd floated the idea of sending recorded phone calls to homes to promote the House, Corcoran was suspected as the author. Corcoran declined to discuss it, and said he did not want to say anything that could be misinterpreted as criticism of Byrd's staff.

    The competitive nature of lobbying comes naturally to Corcoran. In 1984, as a star guard for the Hudson High Cobras basketball team, his scoring and rebounding earned him a name in the sports pages: "Mr. Everything."

    * * *

    After getting a business degree at Saint Leo College, he fell into politics after he became fascinated by his brother Richard's job as a legislative aide to former state Rep. Paul Hawkes of Crystal River. Michael Corcoran followed a similar path, working for Rep. Buddy Johnson of Plant City, whose 1996 retirement paved the way for Byrd's election.

    Today, Corcoran has two companies, two sets of clients and two income streams. Capitol Consulting of Dade City helps candidates get elected. Corcoran & Associates represents businesses and governments needing access to the Legislature.

    Corcoran didn't invent the formula, but he has succeeded at it faster than most: He began lobbying for a living only four years ago.

    "Mike just seized the moment," said Rep. Sandra Murman, R-Tampa. She has hired Corcoran to write newsletters and presession surveys, and said they are well-produced and popular in her district.

    Corcoran worked for more than a dozen candidates in 2002. His most lucrative clients have been Byrd and the state Republican Party.

    Byrd's speakership PAC, the Committee for Responsible Government, paid Corcoran's firm $56,000 in consulting fees from 1999-2001, according to campaign records. Byrd's 2002 re-election campaign paid Corcoran's firm $209,000 for a variety of projects, from direct mail to thank-you notes. The Republican Party of Florida paid Corcoran's firm $201,000 for campaign work in the past two years.

    Records show the GOP paid $1.9-million in all to Capitol Consulting, but Corcoran said most of the money was for the placement of TV ads, and that he in turn had to pay vendors such as printers and TV production crews.

    Corcoran is sensitive to the perception that he owes his success to Byrd. He hired Courtney Bense, a 24-year-old lobbyist and daughter of Rep. Allan Bense, R-Panama City, who will succeed Byrd as speaker next year.

    "Michael has very good, natural political instincts," Bense said.

    * * *

    In the Capitol, Corcoran often works by himself, meeting with lawmakers one-on-one and fielding call after call on a cell phone. One day, an associate walked by with a cart filled with free gift boxes for lawmakers, courtesy of Wyeth, a pharmaceutical company and Corcoran client.

    The items included cough syrup, throat drops and fiber supplements. Corcoran added a note in each box: "Wishing you and your staff a happy and healthy legislative session!"

    Lobbyists must report gifts to lawmakers worth more than $25, but Corcoran said the medicines are not subject to the law because they were also intended for staff members, making their value less than $25.

    Corcoran, who calls himself a fundamentalist Christian, said he wants no part of the drinking and partying that's a part of the legislative scene. He likens the Capitol to "the seven deadly sins" -- especially envy and lust. All that matters, he said, is "God, family and friends."

    "If you don't have a godly foundation, when you get up here, it's very easy to be influenced," he said. "You can get a false sense of who you are."

    -- Times staff writer Anita Kumar and researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

    Corcoran's clients

    Here is a list of clients represented by Michael Corcoran's political consulting firm in the 2002 election cycle and by his lobbying firm in the 2003 legislative session.

    Capitol Consulting (political firm)

    Attorney General Charlie Crist

    Florida House of Representatives

    Rep. Ralph Arza, R-Hialeah

    Education First (Arza's political committee)

    Rep. Allan Bense, R-Panama City

    Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor

    Rep. Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City

    Committee for Responsible Government (Byrd's PAC)

    Jill Collins, House candidate

    Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey

    Rep. Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne

    Rep. Ed Homan, R-Tampa

    Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon

    Rep. Sandra Murman, R-Tampa

    Republican Party of Florida

    Hillsborough Circuit Judge Monica Sierra

    Corcoran & Associates (lobbying firm)

    Alliance for Quality Nursing Home Care

    Boca Raton Community Hospital

    City of Miami

    Florida Water Services Corp.

    Free Community Papers of Florida

    Hillsborough County

    Montgomery Watson Harza

    Nelnet Corp.

    Palm Beach Kennel Club

    Peoples Gas System

    St. Joe Co.

    St. Petersburg Kennel Club

    Tampa Electric

    TECO Energy

    USF Foundation

    USF Medical Services Support Corp.

    Verizon

    Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories

    -- Sources: Division of Elections; Online Sunshine

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