Give up the money, Tom Lee's peers say

Published August 10, 2006

TALLAHASSEE - Tom Lee is sitting on $1.18-million. And everybody seems to have an idea about what he should do with it.

The money, tucked away with a committee known as FLUST (Floridians Uniting for a Stronger Tomorrow) was raised as a part of his bid to become state Senate president.

The Valrico Republican is now running a competitive primary race against Rep. Randy Johnson of Celebration to be the state's next chief financial officer. He could use FLUST money in his CFO race, but has said he won't.

It's common for senators to use their political committee money to help fellow incumbent senators win competitive races. And Sen. Nancy Argenziano, R-Dunnellon, sent Lee a letter asking him to do just that.

But that would mean helping not only Sen. Jim King of Jacksonville but also Sen. Alex Villalobos of Miami, who faces a fierce political challenge but has fallen out of favor with some Republicans for voting twice against Gov. Jeb Bush's education initiatives.

Villalobos was nearly set to be Senate president in 2008, until a group withdrew written pledges to support him, turning to Sen. Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach. Others, including Argenziano, drew in close to support Villalobos.

"Please keep your promise to send the money to the incumbents, for the best reason of all: It is the right thing to do," Argenziano wrote to Lee. She also asked Lee not to give the money to incoming Senate President Ken Pruitt, who has yet to support Villalobos.

Lee said he has decided not to use the money toward any of the Republican primaries, thus staying out of the Senate presidency fight. He won't say what he intends to do with the money after the primary, which means it still could end up going to Pruitt to do with what he chooses.

"I understand Argenziano's frustrations, but I respectfully disagree," Lee said Wednesday. "These funds were not raised to referee an inter-caucus squabble. This money will not be used in any primaries, and it's unfortunate that she's turned this request into a publicity stunt."

At the same time, Lee is facing pressure about the same pot of money from his challenger in the CFO race.

Lately, Johnson has been calling those who donated to Lee's political committee and encouraging them to ask for a refund, two South Florida lobbyists told the Times. Earlier this year, Lee made a somewhat unprecedented move in returning two checks to two disgruntled donors, a $40,000 loss.

Randy Johnson's campaign manager confirmed Johnson has made such calls, but only to donors who were considering asking Lee to return their money anyway.

In the meantime, Johnson continues to call for Lee to dismantle FLUST altogether.