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    Rep. Fasano plays old games on a new stage

    By C.T. BOWEN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 13, 2001


    Mike Fasano hasn't changed much.

    He tells you he has. He boasts of maturity and of having a broader vision to help Floridians. It sounds good during a campaign, anyway.

    Forget the platitudes. The episode with Tom Herndon shows Fasano, the Republican majority leader in the Florida House of Representatives, is the same person who ran amok through Pasco County's political circles a decade ago.

    He's older now. Wiser? Depends upon whom you ask. Certainly, he has more power. But with Fasano, personal paybacks supersede public policy, and his games now are played out on a statewide stage.

    It is unfortunate. His legislative agenda is certainly not much to be excited about -- pushing tax cuts over increased school aid and championing underground storage of untreated water despite the objections of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are just two examples. But Fasano's bullying and bare-knuckles political brawling overshadow any of his positive contributions, such as seeking help for private utility customers and some prescription drug users.

    Fasano butted heads with Herndon, executive director of the state Board of Administration, over changes to the Florida retirement system. Fasano, an associate vice president with Morgan Stanley, wanted more investment options for employees, effectively making it easier for private companies to get a piece of the state's multibillion-dollar business. Herndon wanted to limit the providers, saying the state's 600,000 public employees could become confused and make poor choices with their retirement accounts.

    Fasano says his employer told him it wasn't interested in bidding for the work, then notified the state that it would. The declaration came too late, however, and Morgan Stanely was shut out of the process. An embarrassed Fasano said he would resign his job with the investment company if it attempted to benefit from the legislation he pushed -- legislation, he said, that had the backing of unions representing teachers, police officers and firefighters.

    But tucked into the bill was also an amendment that makes it easier for the governor to fire Herndon.

    "I made it clear long ago I wanted him more accountable," said Fasano. "I have nothing against Tom Herndon personally, but I have great concerns on the way he conducts himself in not fulfilling the wishes of the Legislature."

    It is a familiar story in his home turf of western Pasco County. Swap the names of Ann Hildebrand and Mike Wells for Tom Herndon and you have an amazingly similar tale about investment money and Fasano's personal vendettas.

    In 1990, Wells and Hildebrand were Republican county commissioners. Fasano was Pasco's representative on the Florida Republican Party executive committee, president of an influential local political club and a new investment broker. He landed a plum client -- Circuit Court Clerk Jed Pittman, the man in charge of county investments. Pittman, coincidentally, switched his political affiliation to the Republican Party in the summer of 1990, around the same time his office invested $75-million in mutual funds through Fasano, who collected a $34,000 commission.

    A month after the arrangement became public, Wells and Hildebrand joined the commission's lone Democrat in a 3-2 vote requiring the clerk to get commission authorization on future board investments.

    That vote didn't sit well with Fasano and his party loyalists. Fasano spent the next year and a half saying he would unseat Hildebrand and Wells from the commission. He failed miserably. Hildebrand still is a Pasco County commissioner, serving her fifth term. Wells declined to seek re-election in 1992, but was elected Pasco property appraiser four years later. Fasano's candidate couldn't win the party's nomination for Wells' vacated seat.

    You might have expected such clumsy political shenanigans from Fasano 10 years ago. At the time, Fasano had never held elected public office, and his motivation was personal profit. But shouldn't he have learned some political grace after seven years in Tallahassee? Instead, intimidation remains standard procedure.

    Maybe he needed a new target since he reshaped the local political landscape. His nemesis for much of his legislative tenure was Lee Cannon, the two-term Democratic sheriff in Pasco until his defeat in November 2000 to Bob White, Fasano's hand-picked, well-financed neophyte candidate.

    Term limits will prevent Fasano from seeking re-election to the House. He already has declared his candidacy for a Florida Senate seat in 2002. He is a tireless campaigner, and Democrats privately express admiration for his election-season work ethic. They haven't fielded a competent candidate to oppose him since his first re-election test in 1996.

    If Fasano does ascend to the Senate, he'll rejoin his Tallahassee mentor and legislative housemate, former House Speaker Daniel Webster, who pushed through his own end-of-the-session amendment last week to benefit the son of a lobbyist chum.

    Gee, an amendment intended solely as a political payback?

    Maybe Fasano has learned a thing or two.

    -C.T. Bowen is editor of editorials for the Pasco Times editions.

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