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Authority reins in controversial lobbyist

Expressway officials decide to continue with lobbyist John Beck, but they will rewrite his contract to keep billing under control.

By S.I. ROSENBAUM
Published September 26, 2006


TAMPA - The Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority's new lawyer told the agency Monday that it should retain the services of controversial lobbyist John Beck - with one caveat.

She said Beck's contract was written so broadly that he could bill the authority for almost anything - and that he's earning more than three times what authorities elsewhere in Florida pay their lobbyists.

Beck has been under scrutiny since it was revealed that he met with one of the candidates bidding to become the Expressway Authority's new lawyer, at the behest of board member Bob Clark.

The candidate, law firm Gray Robinson, subsequently won the bid, despite being ranked the second choice by the board's hiring committee.

The authority's own legal affairs director called the meeting a violation of the state's Government-in-the-Sunshine Law, but a governor's office investigation into the matter found that Clark and Beck did not break any laws.

Nonetheless, the authority board threw out the entire bidding process and asked their new interim lawyer, Rhea Law, to examine the authority's policies and its relationship with Beck.

On Monday, Law reported back to the board that Beck's contract defined his duties as including almost anything that would constitute the "general promotion" of the agency.

"When we looked at his last bill ... all the services were within that definition," she said.

Beck was originally hired in 1999 as a subcontractor by the law firm Ruden McClosky, the authority's legal counsel at the time.

Law said it was unclear whether the position was ever advertised or reviewed by the authority's staff.

In April, Beck's contract was automatically renewed, while the contract with Ruden McClosky was put up for rebid.

Law recommended that the board reopen Beck's contract and rewrite it to make his duties more specific and limited.

Furthermore, she said, most of the other authorities in the state paid their lobbyists by the month, rather than the hour. A 2004 contract she had seen from another authority gave its lobbyist a yearly salary of $80,000, paying by the month, she said.

So far this year, Beck has charged the authority about $300,000, said executive director Ralph Mervine.

"Who drafted the contract?" asked board chairman J. Thomas Gibbs.

From the audience, legal affairs director Mary Hall raised her hand. She had drafted the contract, she said. "Mr. Beck also had some input to it," she said.

Member James T. Hargrett Jr. spoke, saying that Beck's work in Tallahassee was too important to interrupt.

"You got plantin' season and harvestin' season," he said. Now, he said, was the time for lobbyists to work on legislators in preparation for the next session.

Board member Thomas Scott disagreed. Local legislators are already talking about dissolving the Expressway Authority, he said, in part because of the controversy surrounding Beck.

"Do you send a lobbyist who has been the subject of questions to those people, if you want to be effective?" he asked.

In the end, the board voted to accept Law's recommendations, keeping Beck but renegotiating his contract.

They also accepted Law's recommendation that the agency have a yearly workshop on the state's Government in the Sunshine and open records laws.

S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached at 661-2442 or srosenbaum@sptimes.com.

[Last modified September 26, 2006, 01:09:28]


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