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Ethics case drags on over senator's claims of poverty

As Alex Diaz de la Portilla continues to insist he can't pay a $17,000 fine, a judge orders him to produce financial records.

Published August 9, 2005

TALLAHASSEE - The case against state Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla has gone on so long, even the judge is unhappy.

The case has already sparked a new law that makes lobbyists ineligible to serve on the Florida Elections Commission. It could even jeopardize the agency, which is charged with upholding campaign finance laws. A new study may result in lawmakers' abolishing or limiting the commission.

The case began after Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, won a special election in 2000 and was subsequently accused of violating campaign finance laws by accepting $10,000 in cash and failing to report $144,000 in other contributions and $68,000 in expenditures.

In 2001 the Elections Commission imposed a $311,000 fine on the senator after finding him guilty of 311 violations of the law. Days later, 295 criminal charges were lodged against him. All the allegations stemmed from reporting failures during the special election.

The criminal charges disappeared in 2002 after a jury in Miami acquitted Diaz de la Portilla, and much of the fine was scrubbed in 2003 when an appeals court scrapped all but 17 of the 311 violations, leaving Diaz de la Portilla facing maximum fines of $17,000.

Diaz de la Portilla says the accusations are part of a vendetta against him backed by a commission whose members include lobbyists who have opposed him politically.

Earlier this year Diaz de la Portilla asked Administrative Law Judge Jeff Clark to eliminate the fine altogether, saying he cannot afford to pay it. The commission noted that Diaz de la Portilla and his wife bought an $800,000 house last year and have traveled to casinos in Biloxi and Las Vegas in recent years.

The senator says he makes only $30,000 a year, the salary paid all state legislators. The house was purchased by his wife, and a recent refinancing of his house in Miami was to help pay off debts.

On Monday Diaz de la Portilla was back in court facing questions about his lifestyle, credit card bills and a new $385,000 mortgage on his house.

Lawyers for the Elections Commission have asked the judge to impose sanctions on Diaz de la Portilla because he has failed to produce some of the bank statements and credit card bills they requested in an effort to prove he can afford the fines.

Elections lawyer Eric Lipman says Diaz de la Portilla has failed to account for some of the money he has been spending, but attorneys for the senator say the commission is merely trying to embarrass a public official.

"It's remarkable to me on a senator's salary he can afford the lifestyle he lives," Lipman said Monday.

"They're trying to drag the senator through the mud," insisted Benedict Kuehne, the Miami attorney for Diaz de la Portilla.

"There is no mud," the judge said, gently rebuking Kuehne.

"We've gone out of our way not to publicly humiliate the senator," Lipman added.

Judge Clark has given Diaz de la Portilla until Aug. 23 to produce complete copies of bank statements and other documents the commission wants to see, including the tab for a party Diaz de la Portilla threw for Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, on March 9. Clark said he will consider the possibility of another hearing before making a decision.

"I'm not happy with this," Clark said at one point during Monday's three-hour hearing.

[Last modified August 9, 2005, 01:22:12]

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