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    Ethics panel clears lobbyist in computer deal

    David Rancourt didn't break ethics laws when lobbying for a computer company, officials say.


    © St. Petersburg Times, published August 25, 2000

    TALLAHASSEE -- David Rancourt left his job as deputy chief of staff to Gov. Jeb Bush last November to launch a career in lobbying. But within weeks, he was involved in a computer deal that would raise questions about his ethics.

    On Thursday, those ethical questions were resolved.

    The Florida Commission on Ethics cleared Rancourt of wrongdoing in connection with his dealings with the state's Y2K Task Force on behalf of his client, the EMC2 computer company.

    Ethics laws prohibit senior managers in state government from lobbying agencies where they used to work. The prohibition lasts for two years after an employee leaves an agency and is designed to keep former public employees from taking advantage of the relationships they established while working for the state.

    In Rancourt's case, the question was whether the Y2K Task Force set up to address and fund year 2000 computer issues was considered part of the Governor's Office -- which would mean Rancourt couldn't lobby there.

    Rancourt himself asked for an ethics opinion on the issue, concerned about newspaper reports that raised questions about his lobbying activities. Rancourt thought he was complying with the law, but "I wanted certainty on the issue," he said.

    The opinion states that the Y2K Task Force was created as an independent entity, though it used staff in the governor's budget office. Rancourt did not supervise the budget office. Task force members included representatives from state agencies and the Legislature. By March 1999, three months after Rancourt started at the Governor's Office, the task force was joined with other Y2K initiatives and put under the supervision of the Department of Management Services.

    "Thus, from March 1999 until Mr. Rancourt's departure from the Governor's Office in November 1999, we find that the Task Force clearly was not part of the "agency with which he was employed,' " the ethics opinion states.

    That means Rancourt did not violate ethics laws when he was trying to ensure that EMC2 would land a $936,579 computer sale at the state Agency for Health Care Administration in December 1999. The Y2K Task Force was one possible avenue of funding for the deal, which is why Rancourt attended a meeting in November 1999. The computer equipment ultimately was purchased with other sources of funding.

    "It's certainly good to have this issue resolved," Rancourt said Thursday. "I'm pleased the commission felt as I did."

    Carol Licko, a new member of the Florida Commission on Ethicsand a former general counsel to Bush, voted with her colleagues on Rancourt's case, even though she worked with Rancourt in the Governor's Office. She said Thursday that she was not involved in Rancourt's dealings with the Y2K Task Force. She also checked with the ethics commission's attorney to make sure she did not have to abstain from voting.

    Between Dec. 28 and 30, EMC2 sold $4.3-million in computers to three state agencies without having to go through competitive bidding. Don Yaeger, another EMC2 lobbyist, went on a vacation to Jamaica with Douglas Russell, the state official who approved the $936,579 sale at the Agency for Health Care Administration. Russell and Rancourt were fraternity brothers at Florida State University. Financing for the deals at all three agencies was worked out by Roy Cales, the state's chief information officer and a friend of Rancourt's.

    Another EMC2 lobbyist at the time was Paul Bradshaw, the husband of Bush chief of staff Sally Bradshaw. After news reports this summer about the EMC2 deals, Bradshaw, Yaeger and Rancourt withdrew from representing the company.

    In other business, the ethics commission:

    Approved a $1,000 fine against former Marion County Sheriff Ken Ergle, who was convicted last year of stealing $155,000 from a department account for undercover drug investigations. Dropped a case against Broward County Sheriff Ken Jenne, a former state senator who was accused in an ethics complaint of doing criminal background checks on people meeting with him for the first time to avoid potential embarrassment. The allegations were insufficient to pursue an ethics violation, the commission decided.

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