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A Times Editorial

A bid for integrity

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 29, 2000

The embarrassment two lobbyists caused Gov. Jeb Bush could have been avoided had the governor followed through earlier on his rhetoric about restoring ethics in public life. Instead, the public is treated to the usual excuses and double talk about inappropriate contacts -- meals, social outings, a trip to Jamaica -- between state officials and lobbyists who worked to win millions of dollars worth of no-bid contracts.

In 1999, the husband-wife team of Don and Denise Yaeger represented the computer company EMC2, which won $4.3-million in no-bid state contracts. The Yaegers had gone on vacation in Jamaica with the state official who approved a $936,579 contract with the state Agency for Health Care Administration. Financing for the contracts was arranged by Roy Cales, the state's information chief, and a friend of another EMC2 lobbyist, former Bush deputy chief of staff David Rancourt. Cales worked with Rancourt; the two occasionally have lunch. The AHCA official, Douglas Russell, approved the contract for EMC2 shortly after returning from Jamaica with Yaegar. Another EMC2 lobbyist at the time, Paul Bradshaw, is the husband of Bush's chief of staff, Sally Bradshaw.

Of course, those involved would have you believe only eight or nine people in Tallahassee are competent enough to arrange such a sweetheart deal. Cales even trotted out the old defense: Tallahassee's a small town. But it's big enough for lobbyists to make an honest living, for top state officials to perform their jobs without muddling their public and private lives and for the governor to instill among his staff (and their families) a respect for the office he holds, even if for appearances' sake.

Bush hasn't been in public office long enough to compare his record with the patronage tolerated by the former governor, Democrat Lawton Chiles. But it's troubling to think the revolving door is already a problem even before Bush completes half a term. Bradshaw and Rancourt have quit as lobbyists for EMC2, a meaningless move that says more about spin than ethics and judgment. Russell has resigned from AHCA, and Yaeger has dropped his lobbying clients. But the state's purchasing rules still leave plenty of room for mischief.

Cales said he will now require competitive bids for purchases that exceed $25,000. That figure is still too high. The paperwork involved is a minor price to pay to keep vendors and purchasing agents accountable. The Legislature needs to repeal the "state term" contracts allowed under law that encourage no-bid contracts to be awarded on the quick. One co-sponsor of the legislation, state Sen. Don Sullivan, R-Seminole, is right: "We may have created a gorilla." The loss in recent weeks of jobs and reputations should be enough to bring back competition.

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