Crackdown on lobbyists hits felons, too

The Senate approves new lobbying restrictions, with a new wrinkle for anyone with a felony record.

Published May 3, 2005

TALLAHASSEE - Lobbyists were in an uproar Monday over a proposal to ban felons from lobbying the Florida Legislature.

It was a last-minute amendment to Senate President Tom Lee's proposal to bring greater scrutiny to the lawmaking process.

Lee said he was unaware that any lobbyists had felony records until telephone calls and notes started pouring into the Senate chamber.

The change, proposed by Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, required felons to get their civil rights restored and win approval of both the House and Senate to lobby the Legislature.

"Apparently the felony amendment has more far-reaching implications into the lobbying corps than we might have thought," Lee said after a quick conference.

Sen. Steve Geller, D-Hallandale, persuaded Lee to delay a vote so he could draft an amendment making the felony prohibition take effect on March 15, 2006, giving any lobbyist who needs it time to seek legislative approval.

Several lobbyists are known to have felony records, including former U.S. Rep. Larry Smith of Fort Lauderdale and Bernie Parrish of Tallahassee. Both went to prison for felony tax evasion years ago.

Sen. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami, jokingly suggested that the felony amendment be named in honor of the defibrillators required on the fourth-floor, where lobbyists hang out.

The bill, which would require lobbyists to report the dollars they spend wining and dining lawmakers, passed the Senate 37-1.

The revamped bill was taken up after negotiations with House leaders, increasing the likelihood that the measure will win House approval later this week.

Lee has said the bill is intended to open up the lawmaking process by bringing greater public scrutiny to one of the most influential groups.

The only senator to vote against the bill was Larcenia Bullard, D-Miami, who said it was "a slap in the face to think I'd sell my vote" to a lobbyist. She said the law will prohibit camaraderie among lobbyists and members.

Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg and the bill sponsor, said he hopes it will eliminate the widespread feeling among Floridians that all politicians are crooks.

"It won't stop some things from going on, but the window will be wide open," said Sebesta. "If you do it, the public at home will know about it."

Under the latest version of the bill, lobbying firms will have to file quarterly reports identifying the total compensation they receive from each client and report the exact amount received when the quarterly fee tops $45,000.

Lobbyists no longer would be barred from giving lawmakers any gift valued at more than $25, except for food and drink consumed at a single sitting. Those meals cannot cost more than $100 per person. Lobbyists also would have to identify whom they wine and dine in reports available to the public on the Internet.

Sen. Walter "Skip" Campbell, D-Fort Lauderdale, praised Lee for pursuing a bill that "goes a long way to show that this body considers bills based on good public policy."

"It's been a long time coming," Villalobos said. "I think the public has always felt being up here has a shady side. Some of that might be true. Some go out every night and have a good time, others don't, but everybody gets painted by the same brush."

The people back home will now be able to see what lawmakers are doing with lobbyists, he added.

"If you can live with going out every night and letting someone pick up the tab, it's okay. But the people back home will know," Villalobos added.