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On Senate Reunion Day, Pruitt slapped by former colleagues

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014 by John Kennedy

Former Senate President Ken Pruitt's double-duty as lobbyist could be barred.

Former Senate President Ken Pruitt is a loser in new ethics standards for local government officials unanimously approved Wednesday by the Florida Senate.

The legislation (CS/SB 846) sets a new code of conduct for members of quasi-government boards like Enterprise Florida, requires city council members to take four hours of ethics training,  and would force lobbyists working for such special districts as the South Florida Water Management District and Port of Palm Beach to register with the state and submit quarterly financial disclosure reports.

The measure still has to clear the House before going to Gov. Rick Scott. But sponsor, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said the legislation was a logical extension of the tougher ethics standards lawmakers adopted for themselves last year.

“There’s no reason for the people who serve on these boards not to have the same code of conduct,” Latvala said.

But an amendment added Wednesday and sponsored by Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, also toughened the bill by prohibiting local officials from lobbying the Legislature for other special interests. The measure would affect state attorneys, county commissioners, constitutional officers, school superintendents, school board members and others.

Although not specifically named, a target of the prohibition is Pruitt, who as St. Lucie County Property Appraiser also has built a large and lucrative lobbying practice.

Pruitt, who was not immediately available following the Senate vote, works the halls in Tallahassee while on temporary leave from his St. Lucie post but represents 15 clients, including the city of Boca Raton, sugar giant Florida Crystals and the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office.

Pruitt was Senate President from 2006-08 and represented parts of Palm Beach County in the Legislature for most of two decades. His lobbying practice has rankled some senators. The bill would prohibit these officers from lobbying after their next election.

Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, unsuccessfully sought to have Sobel’s amendment softened by shielding any local officers currently lobbying — making it only apply to those who seek double-duty in the future. She said only three officials — presumably Pruitt among them — would be protected by the measure.

But it was a no sale with fellow senators.

The legislation was approved 39-0 by the Senate, about two hours before the chamber ended its day early and paused to honor its past members on Senate Reunion Day.




Gift ban tweak stays out of Senate ethics reform

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Seven years ago, then-Senate President Tom Lee pushed a gift ban that essentially barred lobbyists from giving gifts of any kind – except flowers and plaques on the opening day of the legislative session – to lawmakers.

Lee, a Brandon Republican, wanted to put an end to what he called lawmakers out-of-control wining and dining at the expense of lobbyists perhaps looking for a payback for lavish meals.

After returning to the Florida Senate as a freshman this year, Lee is willing to modify the ban after hearing “a parade of horribles” from lawmakers who say the gift ban bars them from participating in receptions held by groups as innocuous as the Boys and Girls Clubs because they fear violating the ban.

Lee had hoped to include the tweak in an ethics reform package, a priority of Senate President Don Gaetz, headed to the floor after the Senate Rules Committee unanimously signed off on the measure this afternoon.

But Lee said including changes to the gift ban in the ethics bill was “a non-starter from the president’s perspective” and will instead file a stand-alone bill to deal with the issue instead.

Gaetz didn’t want his fast-tracked priority ethics reform, expected to get a Senate floor vote possible on the first day of the legislative session in two weeks, to get bogged down in a debate over whether the Legislature was watering down the gift ban.

“I would have been happy with it being in this bill. But it’s just taken a while to get it together. And this bill is moving pretty rapidly. So we’re going to make sure he’s got a bill spot for that,” Sen. Jack Latvala, the St. Petersburg Republican who sponsored the ethics package (SB 2), said.

Lee said he’s trying to “find a way to ensure that the public and organizations get access to legislators but that that access isn’t clandestine and it isn’t in violation of the law, which was predominantly what was going on at the time” his signature legislation was passed.

But any rewrite of the gift ban is a “briar patch,” Lee cautioned.

“It is very, very difficult to create exemptions to the gift ban that you can’t drive a truck through. And therein lies the problem,” he said. “And while a lot of people are talking about the bottle of water or the cup of coffee, I guarantee you an amendment to the gift ban that allows them to take a bottle of water and a cup of coffee will not satisfy them.”

Lee said lawmakers may be skirting the gift ban already.

“I really wanted to get through one session before I had this discussion. But I’m trying to be accommodating. Some of this has resulted in behavior being driven underground into lobbyists’ homes and into the Governor’s Club. There’s a point at which you can’t legislate morality,” he said.

Lee said he’s sympathetic to lawmakers who say they run into trouble particularly in Tallahassee when groups from home who have lobbyists hold receptions. He’s open to allowing lawmakers to attend those “highly public” events provided there is a record of attendance and “as long as the gift that’s being received by the legislator is de minimus.”

Scott’s lobbyist returns to old firm

Tuesday, September 4th, 2012 by John Kennedy

Rick Scott’s top lobbyist, who shepherded the governor’s policies through a frequently wary Legislature the past two years, is rejoining his old Tallahassee lobbying firm.

Jon Costello, who announced his departure from Scott’s office last month, is returning to Rutledge, Ecenia and Purnell, the firm said Tuesday. Scott has said he plans also to appoint Costello to the position of board member on the Northwest Florida Water Management District.

“We are extremely excited that Jon is returning to the firm to lead the governmental affairs practice,” said Gary Rutledge, the firm’s president.  “As an early policy advisor to candidate Rick Scott, and later the Governor’s top lobbyist through two successful legislative sessions, Jon has proven himself to be one of the most informed and effective advocates in Florida.”

The lobbying firm counts among its clients HCA Healthcare, a corporate descendant of the Columbia/HCA hospital chain Scott helped found and lead and which remains a pivot point in the governor’s resume. The firm paid $1.7 billion to the federal government three years after Scott left to resolve allegations of Medicare and Medicaid fraud, while not admitting any wrongdoing.

The Rutledge firm also represents dog tracks, Kraft Foods, Florida electric cooperatives and cable television interests.

Feeney the new chief at AIF

Thursday, December 15th, 2011 by John Kennedy


Former Florida House speaker and ex-congressman Tom Feeney was named Thursday as president and CEO of Associated Industries of Florida, the big business lobby.

Feeney succeeds Barney Bishop, who left the post last summer after seven years on the job. AIF is expected to play a central role in the upcoming legislative session as an advocate for casino gambling — pushing a major ‘destinations resorts’ package targed for Miami and two other, still-to-be-named areas of the state.

“Representative Feeney is highly respected, both as an elected official and as a Florida businessman.  He is a proven leader and will be a tremendous asset to the association. Having dedicated much of the last 20 years to public service, Tom knows what it takes to be effective in the halls of the Florida capitol and on Capitol Hill,” said Erika Alba, Chair of the AIF Board of Directors.

Feeney was the state House speaker from 2000-2002, when he was elected to Congress from Central Florida. Feeney twice won re-election, but fell out of  favor after becoming a crony of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who paid for the congressman to play golf  in Scotland, along with other perqs.

Feeney, who as a state legislator called himself a “happy warrior” for conservative ideas, usually drew high marks from business associations, anti-tax advocates and social conservatives. But running a losing campaign against Democrat Suzanne Kosmas in 2008, Feeney also ran a TV spot apologizing for his “bad judgment” in the Abramoff case.

Back in Florida, Feeney has been running a business consulting and lobbying company called Liberty Team, based in Orlando.

“With the 2012 Legislative Session just around the corner, I will be immediately rolling up my sleeves and getting to work on AIF’s top priorities,” Feeney said.

Bishop leaving AIF, with some questioning the future of the big corporate lobby

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011 by John Kennedy

One of the Capitol’s most potent business lobbies Wednesday was in search of a new leader.

Associated Industries of Florida President and CEO Barney Bishop resigned after seven years as the public face of the organization, effective at the end of the year. Bishop had been under rising pressure from AIF’s board of directors and his resignation precedes a scheduled meeting next week where his future with the organization was expected to be discussed.

“There are other things in life — other passions — that I wanted to pursue,” Bishop said. “Now is that time. I have always been a serial entrepreneur, having previously started two companies. I may start a third company or join another.”

Erika Alba, a Jacksonville lobbyist who chairs AIF’s board of directors, said, “Barney has accomplished great things at AIF by rebuilding our membership and enhancing our effectiveness in the halls of the Florida Capitol.”

Bishop, who earned more than $400,000 in the AIF post, drew some heat from board members in July, months after he caused a stir by declaring that the “number one job of our board (is) to defeat Bill Nelson.” 

AIF’s board is not publicly disclosed by the organization. But a member acknowledged that Bishop’s comment may have got him crossways with some influential corporate backers of Florida’s senior U.S. senator, a Democrat.

But AIF, whose membership is eclipsed by the Florida Chamber of Commerce as a business lobby, has always had outsized personalities at its helm. Preceding Bishop was Jon Shebel, a six-foot-six-inch, ex-Marine who led the organization for more than 30 years until his 2006 retirement.

AIF is also renowned for its annual pre-legislative session cocktail party, which draws thousands to the organization’s Georgian-styled headquarters a block from the Governor’s Mansion. But in an age of business consolidation, some lobbyists have questioned how long the Chamber and AIF, which have many overlapping members, issues and candidate endorsements, can endure as separate entities.

No successor to Bishop has been named.






Dereg debacle nets lobbyist lineup

Saturday, May 7th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Just two days before the legislative session was supposed to end, the two professions at the center of a deregulation bill started girding up for what ultimately proved to be a sine die train wreck.

The National Kitchen and Bath Association, already represented by Nick Iarossi – a rising star on the Tallahassee lobbying scene – and his associate Chris Schoonover, added seven more prominent lobbyists to its team: Sarah Bascom (already doing PR for the group), Louis Betz, Michael Corcoran, Chris Floyd, Yolanda Jackson, Ron LaFace Jr. and Gerald Wester.

On the opposite side: interior designers, the profession the Florida House wanted to deregulate to the chagrin of thousands of interior designers and universities with specialty graduate programs. Tallahassee powerhouse Ron Book and his entourage began representing the Interior Designs Association Foundation back in February. But on May 5, the foundation also enlisted the aid of some of the Capitol’s most influential lobbyists: former RPOF lobbyist Rich Heffley, Brecht Heuchan, Guy Spearman, Sean Pittman and Missy Timmins.

In the end, those latest to the game won out.

In a stunning rebuke to GOP leadership, the Senate killed the dereg bill – keeping regulation of interior designers – late Friday afternoon on what was supposed to be the session’s last day, setting off the vendetta-laden denouement to what might have otherwise been a collegial hanky drop but devolved into public remonstrations from House Speaker Dean Cannon and a bleary-eyed Senate President Mike Haridopolos in the wee hours of the morning Saturday.

Capitol crowd reaction to Charlile’s defection? Snickers

Thursday, April 29th, 2010 by Dara Kam

Charlie Crist was surrounded by a crowd of cheering admirers in his St. Petersburg hometown when he announced he is dropping out of the GOP U.S. Senate primary.

On the fourth floor rotunda of the Capitol, not so much.

The rotunda’s typically a raucous swirl of frenzied last-minute activity on the penultimate day of the 2010 session,

But gone was the cacophony of just moments before as Crist’s tanned visage appeared on two large-screen televisions.

Dozens of lobbyists sat, stood with their arms folded or leaned against marble pillars watching the national broadcast of the governor’s decision.

The response? Utter silence, with one exception – when Crist said “I was never one who sought elective office to demagogue or point fingers.”

Bush Pioneer hosts DC fundraiser for Rivera state senate campaign

Wednesday, August 12th, 2009 by Dara Kam

riveraK Street powerhouse Juan Carlos Benitez is hosting a fundraiser for state Rep. David Rivera’s state senate campaign at the D.C. lobbyist’s home Friday evening.

Benitez was one of President George W. Bush’s “pioneers,” fundraisers who raked in at least $100,000 for Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign.

Rivera, a Miami Republican who’s facing off in a GOP primary against fellow Miami Rep. Anitere Flores, has raised nearly $400,000 in campaign cash already, not including soft money or money in other campaign-related accounts.

Flores has less than half that amount, with about $170,000 so far.

The two are vying to replace Sen. Alex Villalobos, term-limited out of his Senate District 38 seat next year.

Lobbyists strip for charity

Monday, April 13th, 2009 by Dara Kam

Well, not really. But they are emptying their closets of “gently used” clothing for domestic violence victims next week. And they want yours, too.

So if you’ve put on a few pounds and those St. John suits are a bit snug, or those Manolo Blahnik’s gave you blisters, bring ‘em down to the 2nd floor rotunda in the Capitol next Monday from noon to 5 or Tuesday from 8 to 5.

The Florida Association of Professional Lobbyists (FAPL) will collect the goods and donate them to the three neediest shelters in the state for victims of domestic violence who need decent threads for job interviews.

Fashion plates Victoria Zepp and Diana Hadi-Padgett are co-chairwomen of the first-ever clothing drive. You’ve got to envy the lucky recipient of their cast-offs…

Lawson’s loosened gift ban proposal killed

Thursday, March 26th, 2009 by Dara Kam

lawson1A Senate committee killed Senate Democratic Leader Al Lawson’s attempt to let lawmakers accept gifts of 20 bucks or less.

Current law bars lawmakers from accepting gifts of any value – except cards and plaques – from lobbyists and keeps them from eating and drinking on the lobbyist dime unless the public is invited as well.

Lawson picked up only one other vote in the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee this morning from freshman Garrett Richter, R-Naples.

Lawson said one of the reasons he proposed the gift ban change is the negative impact it has had on his hometown Tallahassee’s economy.

And Lawson said lawmakers are getting around the ban by using political committees funded by lobbyists to pay for pricey meals. And lobbyists sidestep the rules by having their non-registered pals pick up the tab at swanky eateries like the members-only Governors Club.

Common Cause Executive Director Ben Wilcox argued against the bill, calling it the “camel’s nose under the tent” that could lead to a further erosion of the ban.

“If $20 is going to influence the way I vote, then I am unfit to be in the Florida Legislature,” Lawson said.

Thrasher to run for Senate

Thursday, March 26th, 2009 by Dara Kam

Former House Speaker-turned lobbyist John Thrasher will run for term-limited Sen. Jim King’s seat, Thrasher confirmed.

The Jacksonville Republican has not officially entered the race but said he will almost certainly jump in after the legislative session ends in May.

Thrasher, who served as speaker from 1998-2000, is a high-powered lobbyist for the Southern Strategy Group, whose clients include Disney World, Associated Industries and the Florida Hospital Association.

Thrasher is a close ally of former Gov. Jeb Bush. The duo cooked up a massive education overhaul on the back of a paper napkin in 1999 that abolished the Board of Regents, the panel that used to oversee the state university system.

Two years ago, Thrasher was the front-man in an effort to revoke petition signatures in the Hometown Democracy effort that would have made it more difficult to change comp plans.

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