What Florida newspapers could learn from Peter Schorsch
Former Florida Congressman E. Clay Shaw dies at the age 74

Outrageous in Tallahassee and why the press corps matters

Chris Clark is a lucky man. Not just because his buddy, Senate President Don Gaetz, is allowing him to make a lot of money in ways that deserve serious scrutiny, but because a powerful story by the Miami Herald appeared over the Labor Day weekend.

This is a must-read story by veteran Tallahassee reporter Mary Ellen Klas. She is at her best both in the reporting and writing of this story about how Chris Clark, chief of staff to Gaetz, has not only been generously paid by Gaetz but allowed to slip in and out of being a state employee so that Clark can reap cash from folks doing business with the Senate.

Some excerpts from the Herald story:

Senate President Don Gaetz’s right-hand man has been running his own political consulting firm, allowing him indirectly to rake in more than $400,000 from the some of the same special interests that have a stake in influencing legislation.

For three years ending in 2012, Chris Clark, 41, took a leave of absence from his state job after the legislative session ended in May and went to work as Gaetz’s campaign manager. Clark formed the company in 2009.

The lucrative arrangement Clark has carved out for himself underscores the web of financial ties special interests have with the Florida Legislature as staff often cycle in and out of government and the private sector, developing relationships with the very lobbyists who have a financial stake in influencing them.

. . .

...Clark’s consulting deals stand out for two reasons: the sheer size of the raw dollar amounts and the fact that Gaetz made a show of standing against special interest money by leading a charge to abolish some of the very political committees that helped fund his chief of staff.

 . . .

As chief of staff and Gaetz’s confidant, Clark is the most powerful staff member in the Senate. He can influence the flow of legislation, where bills get heard in committee and which lobbyists’ amendments get a hearing. Text records show that during the final days of the legislative session that ended in May, lobbyists were in frequent contact with the Senate chief of staff. Clark, who got his start in politics as a travel aide to former Gov. Jeb Bush, is affectionately known as “Clarkie” to his friends in the lobbying corps.

Gaetz not only allowed Clark to circulate back and forth between his state job and campaign work, he also gave him hefty pay raises at a time when the Florida Legislature denied state workers pay increases. Gaetz gave Clark 10 pay increases, including three raises in each of his first two years on the job.

. . .

During the final days of the legislative session, records and media reports show that Clark made himself available to lobbyists who exchanged numerous text messages with him about what bills were coming up for a vote and which amendments were getting considered. The series of text messages over a five-minute period of time on May 1, two days before the Legislature was scheduled to adjourn, offered a window into the close relationship Clark has with lobbyists.

“Chris, I’m begging you for your help here,’’ wrote Randy Enwright, a lobbyist for fertilizer manufacturer Scotts Miracle-Gro, in a text message obtained by the Jacksonville Times-Union.

There is much more to Klas's story. Please read it here.

What should one conclude? First that Gaetz is either blindly unaware of, at the very least, an appearance of special interest influence on his office - or, he doesn't care.

Or, one could conclude that this is a bit of outrageous cronyism in which everyone involved is a cynical partner in the effort to reap cash from special interests.

Republican leaders in Tallahassee like to talk about protecting taxpayers and reducing the size of government. Yet there is a deafening silence about this kind of behavior. Everyone would rather look away - often because they have their own side deals.

The folks who don't look away are people like Mary Ellen Klas. The Tallahassee Press Corps is a vital link to providing information to Floridians about what goes on in a town that is very remote for most of them.

Those who criticize the "mainstream media" might ask themselves this question: if there isn't  a strong group of reporters keeping an eye on the Florida Legislature, the govenor's office and state agencies - who will do it?



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Larry Lipman

Mary Ellen Klas report is devastating. Congratulations to her and thanks, Brian Crowley for spreading the word. You were always one to hold politicians' feet to the fire.

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