By ALISA ULFERTS
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 7, 2001
TALLAHASSEE -- As luncheons go, it was pretty pricey.
For inviting legislators to lunch before he was legally allowed to lobby them, former House Speaker John Thrasher must pay a $500 fine, courtesy of the Florida Commission on Ethics.
Ethics commissioners accused Thrasher of violating a constitutional prohibition against lobbying for compensation within two years of leaving office. The accusation came after he invited state senators to a Governor's Club luncheon with University of Miami officials in February.
Since leaving the House in November, Thrasher has registered as an executive branch lobbyist for a number of private clients, including the university. He is permitted to lobby the governor and state agencies, just not the Legislature.
"It was a fair outcome," Thrasher said from his Jacksonville office after Thursday's vote. He did not attend the commission meeting.
Thursday's fine marks the second time Thrasher has been reprimanded for an ethics violation. In 1993 Thrasher was rebuked on the House floor for violating a law against legislators' lobbying a state board on behalf of a paying client.
And that's why the fine should have been stiffer, said Eugene Danaher, a retired General Motors executive who filed the Ethics Commission complaint against Thrasher.
"It's a wet noodle on his wrist," Danaher said. "I think respect for the Ethics Commission is eroding day by day," Danaher added.
Thrasher and Ethics Commission advocate Virlindia Doss already signed an agreement in which Thrasher admits to two counts of violating the law and agrees to pay a $500 fine. The maximum fine for each violation is $10,000. The full commission signed off on the settlement Thursday.
But not all commissioners were happy with the fine.
Commissioner Richard Spears argued for the full $10,000, saying Thrasher's prior ethics blemish was reason enough for the commission to "take this case because it's high profile and do something a little more with it."
"I can't vote for this stipulation because it's much too weak," Spears said, adding that the $500 fine Thrasher agreed to was simply the cost of doing business.
"I would gladly pay that $500 out of my own pocket and not even charge my client" if he were doing the lobbying, Spears said.
And Commissioner Howard Marks said Thrasher should have been aware that writing an invitation meets the legal definition of lobbying.
"I think it's something he should have known even if he now says it was inadvertent," Marks said.
But Commissioner Patrick Neal said the humiliation Thrasher suffered was punishment enough.
"We're not talking $500 -- we're talking about miles of bad publicity," Neal said.
Thrasher's attorney, Paul Bradshaw, a fellow lobbyist with close ties to Gov. Jeb Bush, said the fine was appropriate given that Thrasher immediately came forward once he realized his mistake.
"He has been contrite. He has admitted he's been embarrassed," Bradshaw said.
Thrasher practices law in Jacksonville and is president of Southern Strategy Group Inc., a firm that includes Bradshaw and David Rancourt, another lobbyist considered close to Bush.
Bush recently named Thrasher to the Florida State University board of trustees.
- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.