Ex-professor, longtime lobbyist, now a felon

He admits to diverting public funds while on UF's faculty.

By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Tallahassee Bureau Chief
Published May 15, 2007

TALLAHASSEE -- A longtime lobbyist has lost his livelihood after pleading guilty to a felony charge of misappropriating public money while serving as a faculty member at the University of Florida.

Dr. Paul Wharton, 51, entered the plea last week before U.S. District Judge Stephan Mickle in Jacksonville.

The judge sentenced Wharton to two years of house arrest, five years' probation, a $10,000 fine, $252,000 in restitution and 2,000 hours of community service.

"It has been a very humiliating process and a very painful and expensive process," Wharton said Monday. "I've already lost quite a lot of career opportunities."

Seven witnesses testified on Wharton's behalf at his sentencing. They included former state Sen. John Grant of Tampa; Steve Uhlfelder, a lawyer and lobbyist; and Dr. Louis St. Petery, executive vice president of the Florida Pediatric Society.

As Wharton seeks to comply with his plea agreement, state Sen. Steve Wise, R-Jacksonville, has asked the Senate lawyer whether Wharton can fulfill his community service hours by working as an unpaid aide in the senator's office.

"Why would he go out and pick up trash or something, when he's got a skill, he's got compassion for kids, and he knows the system?" Wise asked.

"We don't want to waste his assets."

Wise said he asked for a legal opinion to avoid "doing anything that's not appropriate."

The Senate has not yet responded to Wise's request. Senate rules for office volunteers require them to comply with the same ethics rules as Senate employees.

A member of the Senate, Democrat Gary Siplin of Orlando, is a felon and has kept his seat pending the outcome of his appeal.

Wharton is believed to be the first Florida lobbyist to be affected by a law that took effect Jan. 1, 2006.

The law bars a felon from lobbying until restitution is paid and civil rights are restored.

In a court document signed by Wharton, federal prosecutors said the lobbyist diverted $252,000 in state Department of Education money to the Florida Cleft Palate-Craniofacial Association, whose treasurer was Wharton's father.

The government accused Wharton of using money to pay credit card bills and family vacation costs, including a Colorado rafting trip.

At the same time, prosecutors said Wharton was involved in two other fraudulent contracts worth $1-million in which federal money was diverted to the UF Foundation to pay for two endowed faculty positions in the department of pediatrics.

Wharton, a professor of pediatrics, was relieved of his duties as an assistant vice president of governmental relations at UF.

After leaving UF, Wharton opened a consulting firm and lobbied for children's issues, such as expansion of the KidCare insurance program, as recently as this spring.

His clients included the Florida Pediatric Society, Flagler Hospital, Edward Waters College, Partner Care Health Plan of Tampa and Tenet Healthcare Corp.

He withdrew as a lobbyist from all of them on May 7, the day of his sentencing. He reported a maximum of $49,999 in lobbying fees for the first three months of this year.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.