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Legislator reconciles beliefs, business

"I'm not going to impose my moral viewpoint on clients,'' says Larry Crow, whose legal clients have included a casino cruiseline and voyeur Web site.

By KATHERINE GAZELLA

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001


PALM HARBOR -- As a state legislator, Palm Harbor Republican Larry Crow has been an inconspicuous moderate, not a flashy ideologue. The closest thing to an agenda in his legislative career is a bill he files regularly to help people with autism, a condition that afflicts his brother.

As an attorney, Crow, 41, has built a successful law practice of similarly low-profile work: real estate, zoning and helping entrepreneurs set up new businesses. The two careers have provided a comfortable life for his family, but they make for a hectic schedule.

"There are times when I want to throw one of his three cell phones in the gulf," joked his wife, Sylvia Crow.

Recently, however, what Crow considered to be a routine bit of legal paperwork -- the incorporation papers he filed for the online voyeur company ucanwatch.com -- landed him in news stories about a company that may face opposition from the city of Tarpon Springs. That, plus his representation of a company that operates the SunCruz casino gambling boats, led him last week to explain how he reconciles his own views, the work he does for his clients and his public role as a legislator.

Crow said his personal distaste for gambling and Internet pornography has not kept him from representing controversial clients. At the same time, he said his legal work for these clients does not affect his work as a lawmaker. He does not speak on behalf of these companies in the House, and he is not allowed to represent them before state agencies.

"Some people may view my views as paradoxical," he said last week. But, he said, "I'm not going to impose my moral viewpoint on clients."

Crow initially said he did not agree with the subject matter of the ucanwatch.com Web site, which offers nudity and sexual content and is run out of a Tarpon Springs home. But Crow said he might act as an attorney for the company on zoning issues. Meanwhile, police said they were looking into the company, which does not have an occupational license.

In interviews with the St. Petersburg Times, Crow first said he was just a "hired gun" for the company and was not aware of its day-to-day activities. He later said he had cut his ties with the company when the incorporation papers were filed in April because of his objections about the content of the site.

"It was supposed to be a voyeur location with no sex, no drugs," he said. "It turned out not to be that at all."

Usually when Crow is in the news, it is because of another client: Paradise of Port Richey, which operates SunCruz gambling boats out of several Gulf of Mexico ports.

Paradise is Crow's single biggest client and makes up about half the work of his small firm, which consists of him and one other lawyer.

Crow is highly visible as the attorney for Paradise. He has represented it in cases where it is accused of operating without an occupational license, serving alcohol without permission and causing environmental damage. He calls himself an aggressive advocate for the company and considers owners Alex and Mollie Kolokithas to be close friends.

He said the other partner in the company, former SunCruz owner Gus Boulis, was not a major part of the company. Crow said he had few dealings with Boulis and was surprised at the news that Boulis was killed in a mob-style shooting Tuesday night in Fort Lauderdale.

Crow said he has never argued in favor of Paradise or SunCruz in his role as a legislator. He is prohibited by state ethics regulations from representing Paradise or any other clients before state agencies.

He is not required to abstain from votes in the House related to gambling, but he voluntarily took himself out of a vote a couple of years ago about banning gambling on casino boats.

Crow does not support gambling and once told the Times, "It would turn my stomach to place a $50 bet on a craps table." Yet he does not see a conflict between that view and his work representing Paradise before local municipalities.

That is because Crow says his representation of the boats has little to do with gambling. He views it more as a sovereignty issue than a debate about whether people should be able to play slot machines on cruises to nowhere.

Still, his representation of Paradise does not always sit well with local officials in cities where Paradise does business.

In Tarpon Springs, former City Manager Costa Vatikiotis believes Crow used his position as a legislator as a stalling tactic during a dispute between the city and Paradise in 1998 and 1999. City inspectors claimed the SunCruz IX boat was sailing without the required permits, and Crow was supposed to appear before city boards.

Two different times, Crow put off his client's appearances by invoking Florida Statute 11.111, which allows legislators who are lawyers to delay proceedings before any court, municipality or agency of government in Florida during any session of the Legislature.

From Vatikiotis' point of view, Crow's public and private roles conflicted when he delayed the city meetings.

"From my perspective, I certainly think he used the state law to an advantage to help his private client," Vatikiotis said.

"He can make the distinction between the two, and the two don't interfere," Vatikiotis said. "From our perspective, there was a conflict between the private side of Larry Crow and the public side, as a legislator."

Crow said he would never abuse his position as a lawmaker for the benefit of a client. He also said he sees no problem representing private clients before cities that may call on him as a lawmaker to secure road money and other projects.

"I will always bend over backwards to help municipalities," he said.

In other cities where Crow has acted on behalf of Paradise, officials said their experiences with him have not been so confrontational.

In Crystal River, former Mayor Curtis Rich Sr. said he met Crow only a few times. "I had very little contact with Larry," he said.

"I don't have anything to say, pro or con," said Port Richey Vice Mayor Pat Guttman. "He seems to be a very good attorney."

A government watchdog group said that there is no problem with Crow's representation of Paradise before local governments. The only problem would be if Crow tried to use his position in the Legislature to benefit his client, said Ben Wilcox, executive director of Common Cause Florida.

"If he's not helping them to get some kind of treatment in the Legislature, he's got to make a living," Wilcox said.

Crow, who describes himself as a moderate Republican, was first elected to the Legislature in 1994 and was unopposed during the next two campaigns. He drew an opponent, Democrat Sue Humphreys, during last year's campaign.

Humphreys criticized Crow's attendance record at committee hearings. He missed 23 of 30 meetings of the Transportation and Economic Development Appropriations Committee in two years, far more than any other member of the committee. He also missed numerous meetings of the Reapportionment and Election Reform committees.

"I had to wonder why someone was a legislator and was so quiet," Humphreys said. "I personally wondered why he was there."

Humphreys said her comments were not a case of sour grapes. She previously lost an election to Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, and she praised him for "always being in the forefront."

Fellow Republicans say Crow has done a good job in the Legislature. Paul Bedinghaus, chairman of the Pinellas Republican Party, pointed out that Crow hasn't been opposed in the Republican primary since he was first elected in 1994.

"If there were some people in the party who were upset with him, he would have gotten some opposition," he said.

Crow, whose district includes parts of Pinellas Park, Largo, Clearwater, Dunedin, Palm Harbor and Tarpon Springs, has sponsored or co-sponsored bills designed to make HMOs resolve grievances from subscribers, strengthen boating safety requirements and strengthen the public guardian program.

Several times, he has introduced a bill that would expand health insurance for people with autism. The cause is of special interest to Crow, whose younger brother Brian is autistic.

The bill has never passed. Crow said he will make it a priority in his final two years in the house. He will be stepping down because of term limits. "I'm going to take it to the mat," he said.

During the coming legislative session, Crow will chair the House judicial oversight committee and co-chair the redistricting committee.

Latvala said Crow has built a solid career in the House.

"I think on judiciary-type issues, he's been one of the experts," he said. "I think he's very smart, especially when he votes like I do."

Latvala said Crow is a dedicated father who spends a lot of time with his wife and children, 12-year-old L.D. and 6-year-old Gray. Both lawmakers live on high-end Indian Bluff Island in Palm Harbor, where Crow owns a home assessed for tax purposes at $451,000.

Sitting on a bright pink sofa in the waterfront home last week, Mrs. Crow joked about her husband's hectic schedule. She recognizes there might be benefits to her husband leaving the state Legislature after his term expires in two years.

"If Larry left politics tomorrow, he could probably make twice as much money as he's making now," Mrs. Crow said.

But that isn't likely to happen, according to her husband. He doesn't know how the openings in the Legislature will play out in the next two years, but he would like to run for another office.

"If a spot opens up," he said, "I'm going to go for it."

- Staff writer Katherine Gazella can be reached at (727) 445-4182 or gazella@sptimes.com.

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