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In midst of offshore drilling debate, Miami lawmaker denies conflict with his lobbyist wife

TALLAHASSEE — The powerful Miami lawmaker now in charge of the Senate committee on energy policy is married to a lobbyist hired to help secure the repeal of Florida's ban on offshore oil and gas exploration.

Senate Majority Leader Alex Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, was named chairman of the Senate's energy, environment and land use committee this month. He insists any vote on oil drilling or other energy policies that come before him will not be influenced by his wife, Claudia, one of more than two dozen lobbyists registered to represent Florida Energy Associates, the umbrella group of oil and gas industry representatives seeking to drill off Florida's coastline.

"My objectivity has never been in question," said Sen. Diaz de la Portilla, 45. "She doesn't tell me how to vote."

Their relationship is just the latest example of politics, careers and personal lives intersecting in a "citizen legislature," where many part-time lawmakers vote on policies and budgets that potentially affect their jobs — or the jobs of loved ones — outside the Capitol.

"We are a citizen Legislature," said Senate President Jeff Atwater, who appointed Diaz de la Portilla to lead the committee. "There are legislators in this process who are chairing committees who have oversight over their industry."

Sen. Garrett Richter, for example, is a banker. As chairman of the Senate's banking and insurance committee, the Naples Republican helps guide legislation that could affect his industry.

But in the case of offshore oil drilling, the stakes are particularly high.

Proponents of drilling have hired some three dozen lobbyists, paying them big bucks to push the proposal championed by future Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Indiatlantic, and future House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, who say lifting the ban could bring in much-needed revenue.

Fighting back are some lawmakers and environmental groups, who say drilling so close to shore presents grave and long-lasting risks to Florida's environment and its tourism industry.

"This whole 'drill, baby drill' mentality needs to slow down," said Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-Greenacres, who this week proposed the creation of a task force to more thoroughly study the issue. "What is at stake is the future of Florida for our grandchildren, for our environment."

The best option

Haridopolos and Cannon have not filed a drilling proposal. But when it comes, and they insist it will, its life or death will hinge largely on the House and Senate committees that consider it — and the lawmakers who lead those committees.

Committee chairs decide which bills are heard, how much time a bill gets for debate, and which amendments are considered. That's why lobbyists often focus their efforts on swaying committee chairmen.

Atwater anticipates the drilling issue will receive such intense scrutiny, it will be impossible for a single committee chairman to wield undue influence over its fate. He chose Diaz de la Portilla for the energy post following the death this summer of Sen. Jim King of Jacksonville, the veteran lawmaker who led the committee during the 2009 session.

Atwater said his options for replacing King were limited because most senators are fiercely protective of their committee assignments and don't want to be moved. And King's recently elected successor, John Thrasher, lobbied for Florida Energy Associates until just a few months ago.

Diaz de la Portilla emerged as the best option because he was one of the few Republican senators not already holding a committee chairmanship, Atwater said.

Atwater plans to ensure that multiple committees consider any drilling legislation, and he said the Senate will seek independent fact-finding advice from a third party such as a state university or think tank.

"Alex is one of 40 members, and he's always been a methodical leader," said Haridopolos. "I think he's going to vote on the merits of the issue just like every other member. This issue is so huge that you're not going to have a chairman who can move or stop this issue alone."

But Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, a leading opponent of drilling, said potential conflicts should be avoided now more than ever, when Floridians are so skeptical of lawmakers' ethical standards following scandals like the indictment of former House Speaker Ray Sansom and — more recently — of Republican fundraiser and political player Dr. Alan Mendelsohn.

"I would say in general, under the cloud of suspicion that state government in Florida is under right now, that we ought to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest that we possibly can," Dockery said.

'Always been open'

Diaz de la Portilla said he has no position on drilling.

"What drilling?" he said. "There is no bill in the Senate."

But he said he won't recuse himself from voting on any future oil drilling proposals that come before his committee or the full Senate.

"I represent 300,000 people, and they deserve to have a voice on the issues," he said. "They put their faith in me to do what I believe is right. The leadership knows I'm not going to be intimidated by any lobbyist — including my wife."

Diaz de la Portilla has voted against his wife's clients' wishes in the past, supporting, for example, the 2009 cigarette tax increase that her tobacco industry client opposed.

"We have always been open and transparent," Diaz de la Portilla said of himself and Claudia, who married in a Las Vegas wedding chapel in September 2003. "Everyone knows we are married, and we had our careers here before we met."

Formerly Claudia Davant, she is a partner at National Strategies Inc., a lobbying firm with offices in Florida, New York and Washington. This year she is registered to lobby for a number of clients — including Florida Energy Associates. Other clients are in the telecommunications, health care and gambling industries.

National Strategies Inc, has six lobbyists including Claudia Diaz de la Portilla, 42, in Tallahassee. Records show her firm was hired by Florida Energy Associates in April, at the end of last session when the push for drilling heated up.

Between April and June of 2009, the firm reported lobbying income of between $250,000 and $499,000. Of that, Florida Energy Associates paid the firm between $10,000 and $20,000 (Lobbyists are required to report only a range of income, not exact figures). Between April and June of 2009, Florida Energy Associates paid its cadre of registered lobbyists between $184,000 and $234,000, state records show.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263. Shannon Colavecchio can be reached at scolavecchio@sptimes or (850) 224-7263.

In midst of offshore drilling debate, Miami lawmaker denies conflict with his lobbyist wife 10/08/09 [Last modified: Friday, October 9, 2009 2:38am]

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