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On the Web, but it's not easy surfing

Published February 25, 2007


TALLAHASSEE - A year ago state legislators boasted that they were making it possible for Floridians to "follow the money" that gets spent in the state Capitol whenever laws are made.

For the first time, lobbyists would be forced to disclose their fees. Anyone with a computer and access to the Internet would be able to follow the trail of how much businesses paid their lobbyists.

The first year's reports are in, and the state could not have made it more difficult for people to look up the information.

Lobbyists register by name - but fee reports are filed by law firm and alphabetized by the first name or initial of the law firm. Take lobbyist Ken Plante. You'll find his disclosure form under G. He works for Governmental Solutions LLC.

You would have to know that's where he works because there is no online index to look up what firm a lobbyist works for.

The disclosure reports for those who lobby the Legislature are available online - but the reports filed by lobbyists who attempt to influence the governor or other state agencies are not.

The reports are posted as scanned images, which unlike text cannot easily be searched.

We asked Ben Wilcox, executive director of Common Cause, and Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, to try to determine the total fees Plante reported for 2006. Experienced observers of the legislative process, they are accustomed to looking things up online.

Wilcox struck out. "It makes no sense at all," he said. "Were you trying to drive me crazy?"

An exasperated Peterson spent an hour getting nowhere. She called the reports "practical obscurity at its very worst."

"There is no way to do it without printing it all out," she said. "I've never seen such a mess. How hard would it be to enter the name and principal so you could search and get an answer?"

Apparently not too hard, as that's how Georgia and the U.S. Congress handle their searches. Type in a lobbyist name or a business and the information comes up.

In Florida, the problem stems, in part, from the passage of the bill in December 2005, just weeks before lobbyists had to begin keeping records to file. The system was established in a hurry with no additional budget and no additional employees to handle the paperwork.

Lawmakers promise to improve the system. But for now, the reports mostly defy scrutiny.

"I'm disappointed to hear that," said Tom Lee, the former Senate president who pushed hard for disclosure. "It ought to be simple to find the information."

[Last modified February 25, 2007, 05:34:28]

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