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Lobby tales ... through the years

By LUCY MORGAN
Published March 7, 2004

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[Special to the Times: Donn Dughi]
Steaks were on the house at the Trailers, thanks to the mobile home industry. Lobbyist Bill Olsen ran the place from 1966 to 1976.

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[Florida State Archives]
In the 1950s, the center of power was not in Tallahassee, it was at this unassuming fish camp, owned by lobbyist Raeburn Horne. Here, the Pork Chop Gang decided what would be law.
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Pope R. Horne M. Horne

Win, place, show

In 1931, lobbyists pushing to legalize racetracks and parimutuel wagering in Florida shipped a carload of "ladies of the evening" to the Goodwood Plantation, an antebellum compound in Tallahassee where a group of senators roomed.

The details of what happened at Goodwood are lost to history, but that year the Senate passed a bill that legalized racing.

Lobbyists told Gov. Doyle Carlton that his name on the bill would be worth $100,000. He vetoed it. If his name was worth that much, Carlton said, he would just as soon keep it for himself.

Amid accusations of corruption, the House and Senate overrode his veto and established a Racing Commission. It was the beginning of horse tracks, dog tracks and jai alai in Florida.

Cry me a river

The Fenholloway River teemed with redfish and mullet. Fishermen gathered oysters and crabs where the river emptied into the Gulf of Mexico, 50 miles south of Tallahassee.

Fed by a natural spring, the river water was bottled and sold as Fenholloway Sulphur Water, a cure for arthritis and kidney problems.

Change came in 1947, when Proctor & Gamble called on Taylor County. P&G wanted to build a pulp plant and make the river its toilet, flushing its waste out to the gulf. Local politicians, envisioning jobs and capital, pronounced this a fine idea.

Lobbyists went to work. The bill they offered the Legislature designated the Fenholloway an "industrial river."

Any manufacturing or industrial plant in Taylor County, it said, "is hereby empowered to discharge and deposit sewage, industrial and chemical wastes and effluents, or any of them, into the waters of the Fenholloway River and the waters of the Gulf of Mexico into which said river flows."

The House passed it April 22, 1947, the Senate the next day. Votes in both chambers were unanimous.

The legacy of those votes is a river the color of Coca-Cola, swathed with white scum. The fish are gone, the oxygen choked from the waters.

"The Fenholloway stinks," a woman from Perry described it 22 years back. "And if the wind is from the east, especially if it's a damp or foggy day, you'd think a skunk had died under the porch."

Despite cleanup efforts, the Fenholloway still smells like rotten cabbage.

The boys get theirs

The great thing about being a lawmaker is ... well, you make the laws. You can change them.

By 1955, most of Florida had abolished laws that prohibited the sale of hard liquor. Tallahassee was one of the few places where it still was illegal to imbibe at a restaurant. To get around this little difficulty, thirsty legislators drank their whiskey in curtained dining rooms at the venerable Silver Slipper steakhouse. Lobbyists furnished the booze.

On May 12, state beverage agents raided the Slipper and two other restaurants, confiscated the whiskey and charged the owners with violating their beer and wine licenses.

It took lawmakers six days to straighten things out. The bill they passed - the "steak house relief act" - let patrons bring liquor into a restaurant without subjecting the owner to arrest.

Sen. Dewey Macon Johnson of Quincy explained the change to his colleagues: "This is to remedy a situation that occurred to several of the boys the other night."

Low rent

The House was debating an ethics bill. As usual, those opposed said their votes were not for sale, certainly not for a free dinner and booze.

Robert T. Mann, a Hillsborough representative from 1956 to 1968, responded:

"We are all agreed that no member of this chamber can be bought. The purpose of the rules is to assure the public that a legislator cannot be rented for several months."

At Nutall Rise: Raeburn and the boys

April 13, 1955. From the floor of the Senate, his mane of white hair flying, Sen. Verle Pope of St. Augustine gestured toward the small-loan industry lobbyists in the gallery.

"The loan sharks have sunk their diamond-studded teeth into the veins of the people of the state of Florida and are extracting 42 percent of their blood each year," Pope declared.

The bill to clean up the small-loan industry failed, as did others like it. Lobbyists led by former legislator Raeburn Horne always blocked reform.

Raeburn held sway over the "Pork Chop Gang," the rural lawmakers who ruled the state. He would entertain them at his fish camp on the Aucilla River, south of Tallahassee. The place was called Nutall Rise.

Around the fire with a steady supply of bourbon (and sometimes women), Raeburn and the pork-choppers would take a "blood oath" before the lawmakers cast their votes at the Capitol.

Raeburn even got the best of his cousin, Mallory Horne, the only man in modern times to serve as Senate president and House speaker. Mallory remembers:

He had voted for a House bill to limit interest rates. Mallory's father, a judge, got him on the phone: Didn't he realize he had voted against his cousin?

"I said, "Yessir, I did.' He said, "Son, this is family.' "

The uproar led to a fight between the Senate and House. Senators would not consider any House bill until Mallory came down and apologized.

"They took turns chewing me out and told me never to mess with the Senate again," Mallory says. "As long as I was in the House, I never did."

Until Raeburn was on his deathbed, he never spoke to Mallory again.

Beware Delilah

George Firestone, who rose to secretary of state, was Rep. Firestone, D-Miami, from 1966 to 1972. Warning freshmen lawmakers to beware of the lobbyists, he invoked the biblical tale of Samson and Delilah.

Firestone called Delilah history's first recorded lobbyist:

"I just want to remind you, that when it was all over, he had lost his hair and gone blind."

The Trailers: rare, medium, well done

Several miles west of Tallahassee, out Gum Road, was a nondescript collection of mobile homes around a courtyard, and a barbecue grill.

From 1966 to 1979, whenever lawmakers came to town, The Trailers was open for business, courtesy of the mobile home industry. Three nights a week, 30 to 40 legislators and guests were invited out for inch-thick steaks, monster baked potatoes and as much Mateus wine as they could handle.

"You wouldn't drink that wine today," said mobile home lobbyist Bob Hugli, who ran The Trailers for three years, until costs grew prohibitive.

And what did the mobile home industry get for its largesse? Says Hugli:

"A lot of people knew who I was."

Dempsey

Senate Dean Dempsey Barron always said he could eat their food, drink their whiskey and still vote against them. One morning in 1987, aware that a reporter was working on a story about legislative freebies, Barron called to confess.

"Write me up and save me from all this. Save me from myself," he moaned. "I went out for a free meal last night. I ate a 5-pound steak, a baked potato, drank a gallon of liquor, had an after-dinner drink and a quart of ice cream and Kahlua.

"This morning I feel like a bouquet of dog a----."

The unSelphish one

A good lobbyist will do just about anything for a legislator.

Anything?

Even take the rap.

May 13, 1986, after 2 a.m. The bars had closed.

Rep. Carl Selph of Orlando was driving to an impromptu party in the 11th-floor Hilton Hotel suite of two women from the Florida Medical Association. Among those at the party were Rep. Tom Gallagher and lobbyist Ken Powell.

Selph hit a parked car outside the hotel. Instead of waiting for police, he came inside. Powell volunteered to wait in his place.

Powell drove Selph's car into the parking garage and offered a cab driver $100 to take the blame for the accident. That didn't work, so Powell took the blame himself. Tallahassee police arrested him for driving drunk and carted him to jail.

Two hours later, Selph came clean. Lawmaker and lobbyist both were charged with drunken driving; both pleaded no contest to reckless driving and paid fines. Prosecutors dropped charges for filing a false police report.

Selph said the plea bargain cleared him. "I think it proves all along that we were not guilty of the charges. Obviously, the state attorney did not have a case."

Selph was sponsoring a bill for one of Powell's clients. A police officer who took Powell to jail that night quoted him in a report:

"You know I'm a lobbyist, and you have to take the fall when you work for a legislator."

Bizarre state! Collective amnesia

When you approve the biggest tax increase in state history, in secret, in the middle of the night, a little amnesia is just what the doctor ordered.

On April 23, 1987, lawmakers passed a tax on services, including haircuts, advertising and legal fees. About 20 of them had reached a deal the night before.

Everyone could remember the beer and pizza, even the extra cheese, but darn it all, not a one could remember where he had been.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Jim Scott: "I can't remember who was there or where it was. All I know is, it was too close to Studebaker's (lounge) because I wound up there when it was over."

Lt. Gov. Bobby Brantley: "It was in a townhouse. The owner wasn't there. They said we were just supposed to lock the door when we left."

Brantley and Gov. Bob Martinez's chief of staff, J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, were called away from a reception at the Governor's Mansion. They arrived in tuxedos.

Stipanovich: "I've contracted a severe memory loss. It's probably a CIA safe house that we have access to. I don't hardly even remember being there."

The owners of the townhouse nobody could remember? Lobbyists for U.S. Sugar.

The single paragraph

Alamo Rent A Car did not rent space at airports, it paid airports a fee for each passenger it shuttled to its rental car lots. Alamo would save millions a year if the law were changed to eliminate the fee airports charged off-premises car companies.

The company hired lobbyists Ralph Haben and Don Reed. They wrote a one-paragraph amendment that Sen. Curt Kiser of Palm Harbor included on page 34 of an 87-page bill on special taxing districts.

The Senate Appropriations Committee was to vote on the bill May 26, 1989. That morning, the St. Petersburg Times reported the implications of the paragraph: Eliminating the gross receipts tax would cost taxpayer-owned Tampa International Airport at least $2-million a year, Miami International $10-million.

Kiser said he had not realized the damage his amendment would do to taxpayer-owned airports. The committee stripped out the Alamo amendment.

Considering that Haben was working on a contingency fee, he took the loss remarkably in stride. Had his paragraph gotten through, Haben said, Alamo would have paid him $1-million.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Meggs

You toured Monaco, hunted in Mexico or fished for salmon in Alaska. A lobbyist covered all your expenses. Was the trip a gift?

The answer mattered: It was a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 60 days in jail, for a legislator not to report a gift worth more than $25.

In 1991, on the recommendation of a grand jury, Leon County State Attorney Willie Meggs charged two dozen lawmakers who had not reported fancy free trips from lobbyists.

Their defense: You can't touch a trip. A gift is something you can touch, something tangible, like a house or a car. All of them eventually pleaded out and paid fines.

The grand jury that recommended the charges also urged legislators to change state law to prohibit any gift worth more than $50.

Lawmakers responded with what stands today: They cannot accept gifts worth more than $100; food and drink consumed at one sitting is exempt. Violating the law is no longer a crime, it's a question for the Ethics Commission.

The next budget lawmakers passed included something for the state attorney who prosecuted some of them: Of the 20 state attorneys in Florida, Meggs was the only one budgeted less than his public defender counterpart.

Budget negotiators were among the lawmakers Meggs prosecuted, including House Speaker T.K. Wetherell, and appropriations committee chairmen, Sen. Bud Gardner and Rep. Ron Saunders.

Retaliation? No, the legislators said. Coincidence.

[Last modified March 7, 2004, 10:24:13]


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