Letter by senator raises concern

He wrote a letter announcing his new insurance job the day of the insurance vote.

Published January 31, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - On the same day that state Sen. Steve Oelrich voted in favor of overhauling the insurance industry, he wrote a letter announcing that he had a new job as an insurance agent.

Oelrich, 61, a Gainesville Republican, sent the letter to several hundred people, saying he is "eager to discuss your members' or clients' insurance needs." Some of those letters went to state lobbyists, whose job it is to persuade him to vote a certain way.

Oelrich, the former sheriff of Alachua County, just started working for Hunt Insurance Group, a Tallahassee company that, among other things, administers the Florida Sheriffs Association's self-insurance fund, which defends state sheriffs in liability cases. The insurance group didn't return calls for comment.

Oelrich said his letter, which some lobbyists received last weekend, didn't target lobbyists. He also described the letter as an announcement letter, not a solicitation letter. He explained that he wanted to cast a wide net, seeking references and tips, as he jump-starts a new career to augment his job as a lawmaker.

"Most of the legislators have some sort of business or profession; we're not full-time people. I've got to get out there. I'm no longer sheriff," said Oelrich, who is worth $440,000, according to state financial disclosures. State senators make $30,996 a year.

Oelrich said the letter was not intended to pressure anybody.

"See if you can find any sort of, even an insinuation of any sort of pressure (in that letter). It's not there. It's just an announcement," Oelrich said.

Ben Wilcox, executive director of Common Cause Florida, a nonpartisan political watchdog group, said Oelrich's letter sounds "too cozy for comfort."

"Obviously, these lobbyists who are being solicited know this person is a senator, and it will likely influence their decision to respond," Wilcox said. "They may perceive it as: Do business with me or you may suffer consequences down the road in the legislative process. That perception is the real danger here."

State laws that address conflicts of interest are written with the expectation that lawmakers work or have other sources of income, said Wilcox, who called Florida's conflict-of-interest laws weak.

State statutes prohibit public officials from using their "official position" to get special privileges, benefits or exemptions.

Yet several ethics lawyers and lobbyists said Oelrich steered clear of breaking ethics rules or statutes because he didn't identify himself as a senator and he used insurance company letterhead, not state letterhead.

"People who usually get in trouble for that kind of thing put it down on stationery paid for by the city, county or state, or they reference their title or importance in the letter," said Tallahassee attorney Mark Herron, who has defended public officials in ethics cases.

A few lobbyists told the St. Petersburg Times that receiving such a letter could leave some in their field uncomfortable.

"It might make some people uncomfortable, but not me. I can tell them no as good as they can tell me no," said lobbyist and former state Sen. Ken Plante, who did not receive a letter. "As long as it was a proper solicitation, (lawmakers) have a right to do that. Should they or should they not? I don't know."

Oelrich did not seek an advisory opinion from the Florida Senate president's office before mailing the letters, although he doesn't have to, said Senate spokeswoman Kathy Mears. The Senate's office had not received any inquiries about the matter, outside from a call from the St. Petersburg Times.

She declined to comment further on the matter.

Former state Sen. Rod Smith, who last held Oelrich's seat and now works as a defense lawyer in Gainesville, said Oelrich and other lawmakers have to be very careful to avoid the appearance of impropriety in their business dealings. He said that sending business letters to lobbyists "cuts very close to the line."

"I always tell people, if you do it the right way, public life costs you business," Smith said. "It doesn't enhance your business."