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Capitol's no news policy

By LUCY MORGAN Times senior correspondent
Published March 30, 2007


TALLAHASSEE - State lawmakers can no longer accept free copies of their hometown newspapers.

That's a reversal of previous rules, and it means newspapers are being treated differently than other businesses that don't directly hire lobbyists. The timing of the change also is peculiar.

Last year, House and Senate leaders approved rules allowing lawmakers to accept newspapers traditionally brought to the Capitol during each year's 60-day legislative session. The rules were issued after the passage of a new law that forbids lawmakers from accepting anything of value, even a cup of coffee, from lobbyists and the businesses that hire them.

The St. Petersburg Times hasn't hired a lobbyist since 1994, when a Texas businessman tried to use the Legislature as part of a bid to take over the newspaper. Back then, the newspaper hired former House Speaker Ralph Haben for a few weeks and registered our lawyer, George Rahdert, as a lobbyist. Rahdert never actually lobbied; he just registered for a few years and stopped once the danger was past.

Fast forward to this month. On March 7, the day a Times editorial criticized the way the lawmakers and their lawyers are dealing with the new law, the general counsel for the Senate decided to investigate the St. Petersburg Times.

"I want to determine whether the publisher of the St. Pete Times is, as I have been told by my House colleagues, providing freebie newspaper subscriptions to members of the Legislature. I also intend to determine whether the publisher (or the Poynter Institute or any of their intertwined and related entities) have a legislative lobbyist," Steve Kahn wrote in an e-mail to Senate chief of staff David Coburn.

"Yes," Coburn responded.

The e-mails are among dozens of pages obtained in response to my public records request.

It is clear Kahn devoted a lot of time to the issue. He contacted Rahdert and officials at the Poynter Institute, the school for journalists that owns the newspaper, as he attempted to find a way to keep the paper out of the Capitol.

On March 16, Kahn sent a memo to House general counsel Jeremiah Hawkes saying the Times and the Tampa Tribune could not be delivered but it was okay to accept the Florida Times-Union. Kahn said the Times and Tribune are part of a "prohibited class" because they have "indirect but substantial lobbying connections to the Legislature."

Kahn's reasoning was that the Times has representatives on the boards of the Florida Press Association, the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors and the First Amendment Foundation, which hire lobbyists to work primarily to limit exemptions to the state's public records laws. He overlooked the fact that a Times-Union editor also serves on one of the boards. Media General, the company that owns the Tribune, has its own lobbyist.

After several exchanges of e-mails with Hawkes, the House attorney, Kahn sent out a new e-mail on Tuesday apologizing for the confusion and including a list of almost all state papers, including the Times-Union. None can be delivered to legislative offices, he said, unless members pay for a subscription.

The Times offered to charge for delivering the paper for the rest of the session. Kahn vetoed that too, saying the proposed rate was not as much as other subscribers are charged (in fact, it was the same rate charged to other subscribers in part of the Times circulation area).

The Times is represented on the boards of the various organizations just as it was last year when the Legislature's written rules authorized delivery of newspapers. The rules still say that members of an association that hires a lobbyist are not part of this prohibited class just because they belong to an association.

Kahn's logic regarding newspapers would seem to offer limitless entanglements. The Florida Bar hires a lobbyist. So does the Florida Association of Realtors. Will the lawyers for the House and Senate spend hours every year determining which lawyers and which Realtors cannot buy a cup of coffee for lawmakers because they or members of their firms happen to be officers of these associations?

Not delivering newspapers to legislators at the Capitol will save the Times money, and lawmakers still can read the paper online. But it's hard to tell where all this rulemaking is going. What is clear is that at least two taxpayer-paid lawyers have spent an awful lot of time reversing rules and determining whether newspapers can be dropped at the Capitol.

[Last modified March 30, 2007, 01:05:01]

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