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Sembler lobbyist fee draws feds' interest

Hugo Unruh was paid $100,000 to lobby for one project.

Hugo Unruh was paid $100,000 to lobby for one project.

ST. PETERSBURG — The Sembler Co. is reportedly part of a federal corruption investigation in Palm Beach County after the company paid a lobbyist $100,000 to help obtain approval for a Boynton Beach shopping center.

Sembler, an influential St. Petersburg developer, hired Hugo Unruh in 2005 to lobby the Palm Beach County Commission. Unruh's unusually high fee has drawn the interest of federal investigators, who have spent recent years investigating corruption in Palm Beach, the Palm Beach Post reports.

Sembler, founded by former Ambassador Mel Sembler, proposed the 400,000-square-foot Boynton Town Center in early 2004.

After a community group formed to oppose the shopping center, Sembler officials approached Boynton Beach Mayor Jerry Taylor for his advice. Taylor said he recommended Unruh, a semiretired local lobbyist.

"He is very effective," said Taylor, who was an aide to a Palm Beach county commissioner at the time. "There are lots of lobbyists, but he is definitely the one that is probably the most well known."

The shopping center was unanimously approved months later and is under construction.

It's unclear what Unruh was directed to do or what the $100,000 fee covered. Sembler officials declined to comment.

Sembler is the national developer behind local projects such as Centro Ybor in Tampa's Ybor City and BayWalk in downtown St. Petersburg.

Federal officials do not confirm ongoing investigations, said an official in the U.S. attorney's Palm Beach office.

Palm Beach has had problems with lobbyists in the past. Two county commissioners were convicted of corruption in recent years for their dealings with a prominent lobbyist.

But Taylor said he is confident that Sembler's lobbying tactics were above board.

"We wanted a shopping center because it would increase our tax base," Taylor said. "We couldn't be more pleased. We think Sembler is doing a super job."

Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com. Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Sembler lobbyist fee draws feds' interest 06/11/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 17, 2008 2:38pm]
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