Gallagher won't fight panel's makeup

He's facing an Ethics Commission that has two members who have contributed to his rival in the governor's race

Published July 28, 2006

TALLAHASSEE - Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Gallagher said he won't ask members of the Florida Ethics Commission who have contributed to his political opponent's campaign to recuse themselves today when they consider an ethics complaint against him.

Two of the nine commission members have donated to Gallagher's opponent, Attorney General Charlie Crist. Two others have donated to Gallagher's campaign.

"We chose just to allow them to carry out their responsibilities," Gallagher said. "Obviously, you would hope" commission members would set aside any political preferences in making a decision, he said.

At issue in today's closed-door hearing is whether the commission finds probable cause to further pursue the accusations laid out in a complaint filed nearly four months ago by a Lake City airplane mechanic. William Schretzmann alleged that Gallagher, the state's chief financial officer, and three of his employees inappropriately intervened in a 2003 business dispute Schretzmann had with a charter service owned by a Gallagher friend.

It's unclear whether another pending complaint, filed in February by a Lakeland librarian, also will be heard today. That complaint stems from reports in the St. Petersburg Times that Gallagher, between 2002 and 2005, privately invested in stocks that overlapped with his official state duties.

Under Florida law, the outcome of today's hearing - which could determine whether Gallagher will face continuing ethics questions leading up to the Sept. 5 primary - won't formally be made public until next week.

But even if the commission drops the complaint, the timing is bad for Gallagher. Just this week two new polls have shown him still badly trailing Crist.

Gallagher has denied that he did anything inappropriate in relation to Schretzmann's complaint. But he has publicly apologized for trading stocks that overlapped with his official duties, though he says he did not break the state's ethics laws.

Gallagher's federal tax returns show he traded insurance stocks while he was insurance commissioner in 2002; and in 2003 through 2005 he traded stocks from at least three other companies that had business before the state or the Cabinet: St. Joe Co., AES Corp. and AirTran. As the state's chief financial officer, Gallagher holds a Cabinet seat.

But Gallagher and his campaign have contended his ownership in all the companies was so small it does not violate state conflict-of-interest laws.

Gallagher won't attend today's hearing but will be represented by Tallahassee attorney Richard Coates.

Each of the Ethics Commission's nine members, which include both Democrats and Republicans, have contributed to one or more political campaigns.

Two of the commission's nine members have donated $500 each to Crist: Vice Chairman Kurt D. Jones of Pensacola and Richard Spears of Orlando. Two other members have contributed to Gallagher's campaign: Mike Carr of Naples gave $100 and Christopher T. McRae of Tallahassee has donated $500.

In one other conflict-of-interest twist in today's hearing, Crist's office, which normally provides legal support to the Ethics Commission, has withdrawn from that role in relation to any complaint against Gallagher. Instead, outside counsel hired by the commission will present the complaint to the commission, said Bob Sparks, external affairs manager for the Attorney General's Office.

Joni James can be reached at 850224-7263 or jjames@sptimes.com.