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    $500,000 gift comes quietly

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    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 29, 2000

    TALLAHASSEE -- With money having become the dominant factor in American politics, many politicians have taken to boasting -- like so many gorillas thumping their chests -- of their prowess in raising it.

    Now, however, the Republican Party of Florida has received an apparent record-breaking gift that it would rather not discuss.

    It consists of a single $500,000 contribution the party logged in without fanfare on Sept. 20. Though the state GOP and the Florida Democratic Party have received far larger transfers from national party committees, neither is known to have received so much from any private donor during the course of any campaign.

    The party attributed the contribution to Grand Building Corp. of Miami, whose business interest it reported to the secretary of state as "builders."

    In fact, Grand Building Corp. holds no Miami-Dade County occupational license as a builder or anything else. Its only function seems to be to own the building adjacent to Miami International Airport where its chairman and president, George E. Batchelor, bases his assorted business interests.

    Batchelor's primary business is aviation. Known as one of the wealthiest of Miamians, Batchelor, 79, is also a generous contributor to various charities. But his successful career in the airline industry has been studded with enough controversy to perhaps explain the Republicans' modesty.

    International Air Leases, which he has since sold, owned Arrow Air, a Miami-based cargo carrier that the Federal Aviation Administration grounded for nearly three months in 1995 over alleged maintenance violations. In 1998, Arrow Air agreed to pay $5-million in fines and restitution for reselling faulty airline parts.

    The December 1985 crash of an Arrow Air DC-8 at Gander, Newfoundland, killed 248 members of the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division and the 10-member flight crew. Three years later, the Canadian Aviation Safety Board voted 5-4 that wing icing was the "most probable cause." The dissenters said evidence clearly pointed to an explosion or fire before the crash, implying terrorism.

    In 1997, Batchelor had to apologize to International's employees for a memorandum warning them to speak "no language other than English . . . during the workday."

    "I will continue to pay my employees in American money, not pesos, but unless there is an immediate and continuing improvement, I intend to cut all vacation time in half," he wrote. He said he hadn't meant that seriously.

    Having sold International and its subsidiaries several years ago, Batchelor now runs Aerospace Finance Ltd. An article in the June 15, 1999, Miami Herald said the company buys, leases and sells aircraft and engines.

    The Florida GOP's previous record-holding contributor was the Bankers Insurance Group of St. Petersburg, which laundered $440,000 through the party two years ago in apparent, but futile, hopes of defeating Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson. Though it is illegal to earmark such soft money, then-chairman Tom Slade said the party knew perfectly well what was intended.

    "They'd like to whip him, and I don't think it's been a secret to either Bill Nelson or Tim Ireland or us," Slade said.

    But Al Cardenas has succeeded Slade, and neither he nor anyone else at the party was willing last week to talk about what agenda, if any, that Batchelor might have in mind or describe how it inveigled such an enormous contribution. Persistent inquiries elicited only this written statement attributed to the GOP's executive director, Jamie Wilson:

    "The contribution received from Grand Building Corp. will be used, just as all contributions are, to help elect Republican candidates throughout the state of Florida in pursuit of better government for all Floridians."

    I e-mailed questions to Batchelor at the suggestion of an assistant, Dan Healy. They did not reply.

    "I know George Batchelor," Gov. Jeb Bush said. "At this stage in his life, I don't think there's anything he wants."

    Maybe not. Batchelor has also contributed to Democratic candidates, including $1,000 to state Rep. Elaine Bloom, who's trying to take out Republican U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw in a campaign critical to both parties, and a company with a name similar to one of his -- but showing the Washington address of the Democratic National Committee -- gave $25,000 to the Democrats four years ago.

    Even so, his $500,000 will raise the noise level in the debate over soft money, and whether it should be limited as Common Cause, most Democrats and even some Republicans propose. Among the questions certain to be raised is potential influence with the FAA if George W. Bush is elected. Another is how Batchelor's aircraft leasing business might benefit from the lawsuit restrictions the Legislature enacted two years ago. They included a highly controversial ban -- the so-called Boeing Amendment -- on product liability suits based on the failure of aircraft more than 20 years old.

    Then again, he might want nothing but "good government." But if so, why won't he say?

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