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Politics

No coffee, but stay at waterfront resort just fine

Here's how it works: Lobbyists give to the Republican Party, which picks up the tab.

By LUCY MORGAN
Published February 25, 2007


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TALLAHASSEE - When lawmakers passed a law forcing lobbyists to disclose their fees, they included a clause that forbids lobbyists from buying so much as a cup of coffee for legislators.

The day the bill came to a vote, incoming House Speaker Marco Rubio and Speaker-to-be Ray Sansom praised the section designed to stop the wining and dining.

"Perception is about as important as reality," Rubio told fellow members. "There is a belief that many of the decisions you make are influenced by dinner at the Silver Slipper and lunch at Andrew's. Nothing that we will ever do together will be as meaningful as what you are about to vote on."

Added Sansom: "This is a chance to regulate ourselves. We mean business. This is a message to the public that we are here to do their business the right way."

So much for the message. When they passed the bill, lawmakers chose not to close a gaping loophole. The result: Although they cannot accept a cup of coffee, dozens of lawmakers and their families were treated to four nights at a luxury Panhandle resort - courtesy of a select group of lobbyists.

Rubio, Sansom and 68 of the 79 Republican House members stayed at WaterColor, a resort near Destin owned by St. Joe, Florida's biggest and most politically connected land developer.

The lobbyists were hit up to contribute to the Republican Party, which officially picked up the tab. (That's the loophole.)

For the long weekend early in December, the GOP paid for all 68 rooms in the hotel at $250 a night, a bargain at the 499-acre resort that includes a golf course and gulf beaches. Winter rates traditionally run $250 to $745 a night, depending on the view.

The party "invited" six Republican lobbyists to pay for and attend the event. They were Jon Johnson, Travis Blanton, Greg Turbeville, Richard Heffley, Brian Yablonski and Will McKinley.

A GOP spokesman says the event cost about $250,000. Party spokesman Jeff Sadosky said the party collected about $67,000 from lobbyists and will report it when it files its next quarterly report.

Sadosky said no one seems to know how the six lobbyists were selected: "It just kind of happened."

Sadosky said the event was not an end run around the gift law. "Everything we did is legal, we took great care with that."

The GOP reported a $12,318 contribution from Johnson and Blanton in mid December, but the two lobbying partners can't recall taking money to the event. Turbeville's senior partner, Brian Ballard, said their firm makes annual donations to the party to cover such events. He would not disclose the amount.

Yablonski, McKinley and Heffley, who all represent St. Joe, would not discuss the event.

House Speaker Rubio, who was so passionate about the importance of the disclosure law, said the WaterColor event was a GOP leadership training weekend and GOP affair. How it was paid for was beyond his control.

Was it appropriate to invite lobbyists to pick up the tab and mingle with legislators?

Said Rubio: "I think in hindsight, if people had to do it again, they might have thought about doing it differently."

When the disclosure law was passed, Senate President Tom Lee tried to get the House to accept a restriction that would have stopped the flow of unlimited special interest money into funds controlled by legislators and the two political parties.

The House balked. Rubio said additional restraints might threaten "political speech."

It was that loophole that probably made the financing of the WaterColor event legal.

Contacted last week, Lee said the party needs to be sure it doesn't serve "as a Laundromat" for what otherwise would have been a gift to public officials.

"The parties have to discipline themselves," he said, "to make sure they aren't being used."

Lobbyist Ken Plante, one of the founders of the Florida Association of Professional Lobbyists, said the lobbyists wanted the loophole closed because "it is totally out of hand."

"If the party was soliciting money to pay for a specific event, I think that should be reported," Plante said. "There should be some way to see the solicitation and what was spent, especially when you are wining and dining elected officials.

"Dang it, there ought not to be a back door."

Times staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report.

[Last modified February 25, 2007, 05:26:52]


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