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Late change helps lobbyist's son

Amendment to a health care bill has one sure-fire beneficiary: Joseph Spinelli, who needed help to attend medical school in Florida.


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 8, 2001

Amendment to a health care bill has one sure-fire beneficiary: Joseph Spinelli, who needed help to attend medical school in Florida.

Michael Spinelli stood out among dozens of other lobbyists crowding the Capitol on the last night of the legislative session.

In a sea of tailored suits, Spinelli wore a sport coat, an open-collared shirt and jewelry around his neck. He also represented a unique special interest.

His son.

Joseph Spinelli is a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. He wanted to attend the University of Florida's medical school this fall, but his application was rejected.

Dad came to the rescue.

After heavy lobbying by Spinelli, the Legislature amended a health care bill late Friday night so his son can attend medical school in Florida.

"I helped out a little bit," the Orlando lobbyist and GOP fundraiser said Monday.

The amendment sought by Spinelli is just one paragraph on page 287 of a 318-page health care bill. It says any Florida resident who is a student or graduate of any of the U.S. military academies and is going into the military's medical corps "shall be admitted to any medical school in the state university system."

Under those rules, the state's three public medical schools would be required to admit two students each year.

The amendment implies that the spots would be reserved for the military academy students, regardless of their test scores or how they rank among other medical school applicants. They would get preferential treatment.

As it stands now, there's only one sure-fire beneficiary: Joseph Spinelli.

State Sen. Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, is close to Spinelli and sponsored the amendment Friday night. He and Spinelli both said Monday that they intended to help any military academy student from Florida come back home for medical school. They said Spinelli's son now plans to attend medical school outside the state.

"I would love for him to go to school in Florida," said Spinelli, 47. "I would like nothing better."

But the broader public policy Webster and Spinelli said they were trying to correct may not exist.

The legislator and the lobbyist said they believe Florida's medical schools don't accept students from military academies as a general rule. Webster said he spoke by telephone Friday with Spinelli's son, who told him naval officers at Annapolis advised him not to bother applying to Florida schools.

Michael Hoad, a spokesman for the University of South Florida's medical school, said the school has accepted students from military academies who compete with other applicants for the spots.

"There is no policy at USF that would be biased or prejudiced against military academy graduates," he said.

University of Florida medical school officials did not return telephone calls.

Kathy Betancourt, USF's chief lobbyist, called the Spinelli amendment "a source of concern."

"Most military academy graduates are fine students," she said, "but this mandates that you supplant someone who might be more qualified."

The Spinelli amendment illustrates how legislators manipulate public policy to help friends or settle old scores, particularly in the session's final frenzied hours.

Last week alone, powerful lawmakers tried to force Leon County to remove speed humps on a road that leads to the airport (they reversed themselves under pressure); required a civic center in Tallahassee to be called by the name of a former House speaker who is the uncle of the current Senate president's wife; and retaliated against a prominent state official who resisted their demands to tweak investment options for state workers.

Spinelli's rising influence in Tallahassee mirrors the ascent of his Central Florida friends in the Legislature. They include Webster, a former House speaker who hopes to become Senate president; House Speaker Tom Feeney of Oviedo; and House Rules Chairman Johnnie Byrd of Plant City.

For years, Spinelli has lobbied for taxicab interests in Tallahassee. His clients this year also include BellSouth and DuPont Pharmaceuticals. He also has raised thousands of dollars for the Florida Republican Party and GOP lawmakers.

But it is Spinelli's efforts to help his son that have attracted the most attention.

In different versions, the amendment was sprinkled through several health care bills. It also pops up on page 125 of the state's $48-billion budget.

State Rep. Frank Farkas, R-St. Petersburg, was a sponsor of some of the bills and added the language to another bill just last week. He said he spoke to Spinelli and Byrd about the issue and was convinced a significant public policy issue was involved.

Farkas said he also questioned Dr. Richard Bucciarelli, who heads government relations for the University of Florida Health Science Center.

But Bucciarelli never responded to his questions about whether Florida medical schools refuse to take students from military academies, Farkas said. He said that information came from Spinelli and Byrd.

"These are citizens of Florida who are being denied access," Farkas said. "I did it because it was the right thing to do."

Bucciarelli could not be reached for comment Monday.

Although the wording was in the budget and in several bills, Spinelli and his allies encountered trouble as the legislative session entered its final hours.

Webster said one bill had unrelated problems and could not be taken up by the Senate. He said Senate President John McKay also was concerned about the wording of the Spinelli provision. McKay considered the language in the budget too vague, and another bill floating around waived medical school application fees for the military academy graduates.

The Senate president's aides sought out Webster to fix it.

Webster called Spinelli's son in Annapolis. The lawmaker filed a new amendment that spelled out that each medical school would admit two military academy students each academic year.

About 7 p.m. Friday, just two hours before the Senate adjourned, Webster added the amendment to the monster health care bill.

State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, questioned Webster on the Senate floor.

"I didn't know who it was for," Latvala recounted Monday. "I just thought it was a little peculiar doing that kind of amendment so late in the day."

Latvala also made two other observations. He said that Webster normally doesn't offer such narrowly drawn amendments and that his soft-spoken colleague was uncharacteristically defensive.

The Senate passed the bill 38-0 and sent it to the House. The House approved it 114-0.

Gov. Jeb Bush, who would have to veto the entire bill to stop the Spinelli amendment, has not taken a position.

"They are Florida residents. ... They are going to be serving people who serve their countries," Webster said of the military academy graduates who would get a guaranteed spot in medical school. "I thought it was a good issue."

- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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