Lobbyists file newly required reports

Published May 17, 2006

TALLAHASSEE - Southern Strategy Group, a lobbying firm anchored by former House Speaker John Thrasher, reported annualized billings of up to $11.5-million based on its first-quarter earnings report filed with the Florida Ethics Commission.

Another of the capital's lobbying giants, Smith & Ballard, did even better, with first-quarter receipts between $2.6- and $3.7-million.

The two companies were among the first to submit the newly required compensation reports following the Legislature's passage in December of tougher rules for the lobbyists who represent hundreds of companies with business before the state.

"When it's all said and done, I see the merits of disclosure," Brian Ballard said. "Once this thing goes through a couple of cycles it won't be newsworthy any more."

Ballard, a former aide to Gov. Bob Martinez, and his father-in-law, former Attorney General and Secretary of State Jim Smith, run a slightly smaller firm than Southern Strategy, but with roughly the same number of clients.

Many lobbyists fought the billings disclosure requirement and even took it to court, but a federal judge last week refused to block the new law, which also bans gift-giving to legislators.

Before the gifts ban, lobbyists had to report what they spent on entertaining legislators or members of the executive branch.

"The new requirement is frankly less onerous for us than the expense reporting was because you had to keep receipts, see who was there, divide it up to see who paid and didn't pay," Ballard said.

The companies reported their fees separately for the executive and legislative branches.

"It's time that we recognized that lobbyists not only fill an important role, but that they can do it with integrity and professionalism," Thrasher said in a statement. "Timely filing of these reports today is part of that process."

Thrasher, who was speaker in 1999 and 2000, is one of Southern Strategy's seven lobbyists in Tallahassee who represent roughly 100 clients at the Capitol. The company also includes Paul Bradshaw, husband of longtime Bush political adviser Sally Bradshaw.

"The fact some of these people are beginning to see the merits in these disclosure provisions and the fact that we have actually streamlined their reporting in some respects is welcome news," said Senate President Tom Lee, who led the push for the tougher standards. "This legislation was about transparency, disclosure, giving the public more information about what's going on inside its government."

The report showed Ballard & Smith received $91,000 from a longtime Philadelphia container firm, Crown Cork & Seal Company Inc., for work it did last year. Lexis-Nexis was among a half dozen companies that paid Southern Strategy between $30,000 and $40,000 in the last quarter for representation.

The Ethics Commission, meanwhile, reported it was overwhelmed with the reports. Several employees told the Associated Press they couldn't be sure when they might have a fix on compliance with the new requirement that took effect Jan. 1, but that it would likely be several days at the earliest.