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Lobbyists' fundraiser for Johnson packs one-two punch

While helping a CFO candidate, lobbyists get to exact some revenge on Senate President Tom Lee.

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published June 14, 2006


TALLAHASSEE - Lobbyists will throw a political fundraiser today with two goals: to help state Rep. Randy Johnson of Celebration become Florida's next chief financial officer and to exact a little revenge on his Republican primary opponent, Senate President Tom Lee.

Throughout his two-year tenure as Senate president, Lee has been an outspoken critic of the influence of lobbyists.

He was the leading supporter of a new state law that requires lobbyists to report how much money they make from their clients. The law recently survived a legal challenge by a lobbyist organization that argued that the law invaded lobbyists' privacy.

Today's $500 per person event at the Governor's Club is billed by one of its organizers as a chance to get even with the Hillsborough County senator.

Lobbyist Jeff Sharkey, who called Johnson a very close friend, sent an e-mail to dozens of his colleagues Monday in which he urged them to "make your own statement" by helping Johnson and "make a simple, yet poetic statement regarding our profession, and the pride we place in it."

"We believe there are few better ways to let Tom Lee know we do not appreciate his treatment and criticism of us in the lobbying corps than writing a check for a contribution to the Randy Johnson campaign," Sharkey wrote.

Sharkey's Capitol Alliance Group represents BellSouth and affordable housing providers, among others.

In an interview, Sharkey said he did not know how many lobbyists would write checks to Johnson's campaign today. But he said lobbyists feel freer to take sides now that the 2006 legislative session is over and Lee no longer holds life-or-death power over legislation.

"There's no pressure to act politically correct," Sharkey said. "There are people who didn't appreciate having their integrity questioned."

At the same time that Lee was speaking critically of the influence that lobbyists have in Tallahassee, he was raising money from them and their clients for a political committee that he controls. The $1.1-million that Lee collected was supposed to help Senate candidates in previous election years, but the money has not been spent.

Lee has pledged not to use the money in his statewide race.

Lee, 44, is a Valrico home builder. Johnson, 46, has been in the House since 1998 and is president of the Central Florida Sports Commission.

The Johnson fundraiser comes four weeks after Gov. Jeb Bush endorsed Lee for the powerful CFO post. The Cabinet office is open because Tom Gallagher is running for governor.

According to an invitation, organizers of the event include lawyer Wade Hopping, who represents housing developers and sugar cane growers.

Others involved include Mike Raynor, a longtime BellSouth lobbyist; and lobbyists Bill Hebrock, Jeffrey Howell, David Ramba and Don Yaeger.

Lobbyist Richard Pinsky, who is Johnson's campaign strategist, also lobbies for BellSouth and other companies.

Lee has assailed what he called "the power and arrogance of special interests" and fought to banish lobbyists from serving on policymaking boards for higher education in Florida.

He has famously said, "I didn't come here with a whole lot of friends, and I don't expect to leave with any," and he struck a similar note when asked about Sharkey's invitation.

"I didn't expect to win any popularity contests when I set out to change the culture in Tallahassee," Lee said Tuesday. "I'm sorry they took it personally. I didn't do this to them. I did it for the people of Florida."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.

[Last modified June 14, 2006, 05:16:56]


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