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Lee refunds $20,000 donation

The Senate president, a home builder himself, acts after reading of the builders' complaint about fundraising.

Published January 25, 2006

Sen. Tom Lee is upset the home builders' group complained about the money in the media first and not to him.

TALLAHASSEE - Senate President Tom Lee has returned a political donation from an influential home builders' group after a member criticized Lee in a newspaper story about his fundraising.

Lee hand-delivered a check on Monday for more than $20,000 to the Florida Home Builder's Association, which had donated the money to one of Lee's political funds two years ago.

The day before, the St. Petersburg Times reported critics questioned the sincerity of Lee's effort to curb the influence of money in politics because he has been such a prolific fundraiser himself.

Wayne Bertsch, the builders' political affairs director, said his group wanted its money back because the original donation was intended to help Senate candidates and Lee was considering using the money for his own race for the state's chief financial officer.

Bertsch said the builders group wanted the money back, which had been donated by the Florida Homebuilders PAC, to spend on candidates in other races, "but (Lee) has not been forthcoming."

The money went to Floridians Uniting for a Stronger Tomorrow, a fund Lee controls that has raised more than $1.1-million, largely in unrestricted, so-called soft money donations.

At the time, Lee was preparing to become the Senate president and said the money would be used to defend Republican senators against attack ads, but those attacks never happened.

The money is still in the bank and could be a potential political problem for Lee in his race for CFO. The fund's Web site, showed a refund Tuesday in the amount of $20,339.60; the donation and $339.60 in interest.

"It was an unemotional, dispassionate decision just to give them their money back," Lee said.

The builders group had little comment Tuesday. Bertsch did not return calls, and the group's spokeswoman, Edie Ousley, would say only that Lee returned the group's check.

Lee said he hand-delivered the check and a letter to the builders' lobbyist and general counsel, Richard Gentry, on Monday.

In the letter, Lee said he included "a subtle admonishment that given the long-standing professional relationship that we have had, there certainly wasn't any need for them to communicate those sentiments directly to the media. They could have communicated them directly, to me."

Lee declined to give a copy of the letter to the Times, and said he would not seek to punish the builders politically in the 2006 session.

"This doesn't reflect favorably on the organization or its management or its professionalism," Lee said, "but it certainly doesn't impact my propensity to do the right thing."

It is rare for elected officials to return campaign contributions, and giving back a check of $20,000 is rarer still.

The public clash between Lee and the builders is unique especially because Lee is a home builder, and Lee's father, Jim Lee, who founded Sabal Homes of Florida, was a leader of the organization in the 1980s and 1990s.

Earlier this month, Lee attended the annual convention of the National Homebuilders Association in Orlando to be with his father when Sabal Homes accepted a national award for the design of one of its single-family home models.

The builders' PAC has made more than $3-million in contributions since the 1996 elections, according to online state elections records. The group has been active in paying for direct mail pitches tailored for and against legislative candidates in the last several election cycles.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at or 850 224-7263.

[Last modified January 25, 2006, 00:54:10]

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