State Politics

A booming industry at the Capitol: Consultants who lobby

TALLAHASSEE — The unlimited special-interest cash streaming into Florida legislators’ political accounts has enriched a small group of influential consultants who received $19.5 million from political committees and campaigns in the 2008 election cycle.

The torrent of money flowing through the Capitol has also fueled an industry of consultants who lobby.

Of the 60 highest-paid consultants for lawmakers’ committees, at least 12 work as lobbyists, according to a Herald/Times analysis. The consultant-lobbyists are hired by corporations to influence the same legislators who pay them for political help.

This circular network ties together special interests, lobbyists and lawmakers in a tight web of money and insider access. The lobbying clients seek legislative help. The legislators seek cash, for re-election or pet causes. The common link: the consultant.

Republican consultant Roger “Rocky” Pennington says he and other consultants must strike a careful balance when special interests want to hire them solely because of their relationships with specific lawmakers.

“Once they start hiring you because they want influence with one person, you aren’t a lobbyist, you’re an influence peddler,” Pennington said. ‘You have to ask yourself: Are you lobbying because of the merits of the issue or are you lobbying because of your friendship or relationship with the elected official?”

Pennington was paid $2.1 million over the past two years to serve as political advisor to a host of lawmakers and buy expensive TV ads for them. He says he minimizes problems by refusing to take clients half-way through session when lobbyists most try to influence the votes of individual lawmakers and he now is semi-retired with only one client, the Municipal Electric Association.

Just last week, Altria, which manufactures Marlboro cigarettes, hired one of the Capitol’s newest lobbyists, Todd Richardson. He’s a political consultant for Republican Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff of Fort Lauderdale.

Bogdanoff chairs the House Finance and Tax Council, where Altria hopes to kill a plan to raise the cigarette tax.

“What I’m doing is completely legal,” said Richardson. “Relationships are the name of the game. I have more relationships than with just Ellyn. I have relationships with a lot of freshmen and with almost every member of the House.”

Richardson was paid $126,000 in wages and reimbursements in his role as consultant to Bogdanoff’s campaign and political committee, Creating Possibilities. Bogdanoff opposed a cigarette-tax hike long before Altria hired Richardson. She said she had no problem with him moonlighting as a lobbyist for the cigarette company.

As the full force of term limits takes hold in the Legislature, more lobbyists are becoming political consultants to increase their access to new legislators, said consultant-lobbyist Joe Perry.

The lobbyists can build up “sweat equity’’ by acting as consultants for legislators, said Perry, a Democrat who was paid $209,000 for fundraising and consulting work since 2007.

Perry acknowledged that, when special interests hire people paid by legislators, they hire a unique commodity.

“There’s no doubt we have access to these folks and probably more so than the rank and file lobbyists,” Perry said.

But he said there’s a downside, too. Perry lobbies for FCCI Insurance Group, which seeks workers’ compensation legislation opposed by many Democrats — the same people who hire him for political work. Perry said he can’t afford too many conflicts like that.

“If I were to take too many lobbying clients and create a lot of enemies, I’ll kill my fundraising business,” he said.

The lawmaker-controlled political committees — called “committees of continuing existence” — have become cash cows of Florida’s political process. They can be formed by legislators and used to collect unlimited amounts of so-called “soft money” from special interests, and contributions are not subject to a “hard” cap of $500. The money can be funneled to other committees called “electioneering communication organizations” that spend money on attack ads and direct mail pieces.

The 12 consultant-lobbyists were paid about $374,000 in total by the 40 committees they worked for, and received $3.5 million more from other political groups and campaigns in the past election season. The 60 consultants altogether received about $1 million from the committees and $18.5 million more from virtually every campaign and political group.

Not all consultant-lobbyists worked for a lawmaker’s committee in the past election cycle. Still, the political committees — and the relationships they foster between lawmakers and consultants — offer a window into the world of Capitol insiders.

For example, the committees give lawmakers the opportunity to steer business to allies and friends. Consultant-lobbyist Esther Nuhfer earned the most of her $201,000 from the campaign and political committee of her friend, Rep. David Rivera.

Rivera’s committee, Future Leadership, also paid $10,000 to Bridget Gregory Nocco, a prodigious Republican fund-raiser and Rivera friend.

The big money washing through the Capitol stands out in a year when the budget’s in the red and record numbers of Floridians are losing jobs and seeking food stamps.

Against that backdrop, the idea of consultants who lobby makes even the king of Florida political consultants uncomfortable. Randy Nielsen, a top Republican consultant, said he didn’t want to “cast aspersions” on his colleagues.

“I don’t see how you can give clear, unfettered advice if you’re paid to lobby your clients,” said Nielsen, not a registered lobbyist.