A political career, clouded by scandal

The former lieutenant governor, who died Monday, was nearly impeached after winning office with Reubin Askew.

Published May 24, 2006

TALLAHASSEE - As Reubin Askew's running mate in 1970, Tom Adams played a vital role in the election of a progressive underdog candidate for governor.

Three years later, in the midst of Watergate, Mr. Adams became a symbol of the need for higher ethical standards in Florida politics. He was nearly impeached for using a state employee to manage his farm and was dropped from Askew's 1974 re-election ticket. He ran for governor himself that year but lost.

Mr. Adams, 89, died Monday of injuries suffered in a traffic accident on Interstate 10 near Live Oak in Suwannee County. He was taking his 19-year-old son to Gainesville, where Thomas Adams III was to attend the University of Florida next semester.

The Florida Highway Patrol said Mr. Adams, who was not wearing a seat belt, was thrown from his overturned 2004 Ford Explorer and was pronounced dead at the scene. His son, who was wearing a seat belt, was airlifted to Shands Hospital at UF and was listed in fair condition.

A native of Jacksonville, Thomas Burton Adams Jr. was the first Florida lieutenant governor elected in tandem with a governor. The position was abolished in 1885 but revived as part of a rewrite of the state Constitution in 1968.

He began his political career as a state senator in 1956, representing Clay and Baker counties in the heyday of the "pork choppers" who protected rural turf and resisted sharing power with fast-growing metropolitan areas.

In 1960 he won office as secretary of state, in an era when the six-member Cabinet was very powerful. On Tuesdays it scrutinized every purchase order by every prison, hospital and university, and Mr. Adams became a watchdog over public spending and personnel moves.

Mr. Adams was known for having an eye for talent, too. Among his hires were a young Jim Smith, who later won election as attorney general and secretary of state; Mel Martinez, now a U.S. senator; and a number of others who have had long careers in state government, lobbying or both.

"He was an organizer. He loved to organize things," said Jim Apthorp, who served as Askew's chief of staff and now runs the Collins Center for Public Policy at Florida State University. "He was right on issue after issue, and didn't mind taking on a governor, or anybody."

Askew, a state senator from Pensacola, was little known outside his Panhandle roots when he took on Republican Gov. Claude Kirk in 1970. For his running mate he chose Mr. Adams, who had a statewide network of supporters in place for his own race for governor that never materialized.

"He brought a network to the table that was very important in terms of Askew's viability as a candidate," said Jay Landers, a Tallahassee lawyer who served as a Cabinet aide under Mr. Adams. "Ultimately, Askew was elected based on who he was."

The Askew-Adams ticket won handily, and Mr. Adams was given control over the Commerce Department. But the two men weren't a good fit.

"They never really clicked as a team," said Don Pride, a capital reporter for the St. Petersburg Times and other newspapers who became Askew's press secretary. "Adams was very much off to the side and on his own."

Mr. Adams' career unraveled in 1973 when two reporters discovered that even though he was in debt, he was leasing a 1,000-acre farm in Quincy and using a Commerce Department employee to manage it on government time. He was forced to repay $1,736 to the state, was censured by a legislative committee and replaced as Askew's running mate by Jim Williams of Ocala.

Mr. Adams retired to Indian River County and attempted a comeback as a state Senate candidate in 1984, but lost by more than a 2-1 ratio to Republican Tim Deratany.

In that race, Mr. Adams' honorary campaign chairman was Bill Nelson, then a U.S. representative and now Florida's senior senator.

Nelson voted to impeach Mr. Adams a decade before, and explained that vote to the St. Petersburg Times in 1984: "Adams became the example in the change of ethics and standards. This was right at the time of Watergate, and there was a lot of suspicion about politicians. We made him a specific example."

Mr. Adams died on the same day as former state Rep. Jim Redman of Plant City, chairman of the House committee that considered Mr. Adams' impeachment.

Funeral arrangements were incomplete Tuesday. A spokesman for Seawinds Funeral Home in Sebastian said plans were under way for a service Saturday at Sebastian River High School, 9001 Shark Blvd., Sebastian.

Gov. Jeb Bush ordered all state flags to be flown at half staff until the day of interment.

Times researcher Angie Holan contributed to this report.