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Donations dodge ban on lobbyist gifts

Trinkets are out, but hefty checks have cleared under the state's year-old ban.

Published March 12, 2007


TALLAHASSEE - Things are backward, as is often the case in the state capital, when it comes to policing what lobbyists give lawmakers: They sweat the small stuff while blessing the big bucks that really matter.

So, a legislator is barred from accepting a free coffee mug from National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer. But to pay for its annual golf tournament, the Hispanic legislative caucus is free to hit lobbyists up for $20,000 each.

So, like any lawmaker, Rep. Don Brown, R-DeFuniak Springs, cannot accept a free key chain from a lobbyist. But he is free to solicit lobbyists to contribute unlimited amounts to Donald's Duck Hunt to raise money for his hometown Washington-Holmes Vocational Technical Foundation.

So, lawmakers fret over whether they can accept a birthday card from a lobbyist. But Walt Disney World, which has a team of lobbyists, is free to spend nearly $100,000 to provide rooms and entertainment at a fundraiser for Republican lawmakers.

In the past year, legislative lawyers have spent hundreds of hours checking who's paying for key lime pies and examining lunch invitations, while allowing unlimited donations to committees and charities that lawmakers control.

That's because lawmakers left a loophole when they passed the law banning gifts from lobbyists. They can't accept a free cup of coffee, but they can accept a check for $100,000 to their favorite charity or campaign accounts.

Lobbyists say that it's stupid to ban wining and dining and trinket-giving but leave the door open for lawmakers to demand cash for their political committees, party and charities, especially given that the law bans lobbyists from spending money, "directly or indirectly," on lawmakers.

"It's difficult to say no expenditure can be made by a lobbyist and then turn around and say you can make the gift under this set of circumstances," said lobbyist Wilbur Brewton. "As a lawyer, I think the law prohibits it, and I advise my clients not to give."

Lobbyist Ken Plante, one of the founders of the Florida Association of Professional Lobbyists, questions lawmakers' constant demand for contributions to campaigns and charitable organizations.

Would a lobbyist contribute to the charity if the legislator were not the one asking for a donation? Probably not, say Plante and Brewton.

The St. Petersburg Times reviewed hundreds of questions from lawmakers and opinions issued by House general counsels Debby Kearney and Jeremiah Hawkes and Senate general counsel Stephen Kahn. The lawyers repeatedly found charitable contributions from lobbyists legal as long as lawmakers did not create or control the charity.

To solve their problems with the law, the Hispanic Legislative Caucus and the Conference of Black State Legislators replaced all their officers who were lawmakers with others, supposedly removing legislative control. That's why the Hispanic Caucus could hit up lobbyists to pay for the golf tournament.

Disney World's $100,000 entertainment tab for the Republicans was deemed legal because it was a campaign activity, not for the benefit of any specific lawmaker.

Rep. Brown can approach lobbyists for Donald's Duck Hunt as long as he does not control use of the money or personally benefit from the charity.

There is little chance the Legislature will close the loophole. House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-Miami, said the law is working, with members and lobbyists settling into a new relationship.

It used to be that a legislator could eat breakfast, lunch and dinner on a lobbyist's tab, and get beer and wine from the "beer fairy." The year-old law has changed that.

"A lot of it is based on common sense," Rubio said. "I think members are getting used to paying for their own meals. People didn't run for the free meals. In an era of term limits where you have so many new members, soon no one will know any other way."

Sen. Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg, and Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota, filed bills last week that would prohibit legislators and statewide officials from soliciting or accepting contributions to political committees. But they have no Republican co-sponsors in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Justice said any lawmaker who has faced last-minute campaign attacks paid for by political committees should be sympathetic to the need to control them.

"Major pieces of legislation don't come from who is buying dinner at Andrew's," Justice said. "It comes from the people who are dumping millions of dollars into campaigns - it's what happens in the campaigns, not on Adams Street, that changes policy in Tallahassee."

Meantime, House and Senate lawyers keep answering questions about enforcement of the gift law. Earlier this year, lobbyist Damon Smith collapsed in the House Office Building and was saved by the quick action of several House employees and Rep. Ed Homan, a Tampa doctor.

When the American Heart Association asked about rewarding those who saved Smith, the lawyers agreed it was okay - as long as the awards didn't include cash.

Said Smith: "I hate it that I can't buy dinner for the people who saved my life."

Lucy Morgan can be reached at or 850 224-7263.

[Last modified March 11, 2007, 22:49:48]

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