WASHINGTON — From his U.S. Senate office in March 2010, George LeMieux declared he would have voted against the $787 billion federal stimulus "now that we see how little of that money has stimulated the economy."
It was the earliest sign he was abandoning his political patron, Gov. Charlie Crist, and confirmation of his political ambition.
But behind the scenes, LeMieux was trying to secure hundreds of millions in stimulus dollars for Florida, letters he sent to the U.S. Department of Transportation reveal.
As LeMieux mounts his campaign to return to the Senate, the contradictory signals have come into view.
LeMieux, 41, is positioning himself as a rigid fiscal conservative, sounding alarms over government spending and the national debt. He's attacking GOP primary rivals and incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson for seeking millions in funding for local projects.
Just over a week into his 16-month term, LeMieux began writing requests to the U.S. Department of Transportation supporting stimulus projects.
• $5.9 million for a harbor walk in Charlotte County.
• $20 million for improvements at the Port of Tampa.
• $36 million for a truck and rail facility in Charlotte County.
• $39 million to expand Port St. Joe.
• $55 million for an overpass at Port Everglades in Broward County.
• $65 million for a transportation hub in Jacksonville.
• $96 million for a bus terminal and rail platform in Miami.
Most were unsuccessful in initial funding awards. LeMieux also openly lobbied for $2.6 billion in stimulus for a high-speed rail project from Orlando to Tampa, boasting in a letter to the DOT that it was the nation's most "shovel ready" project and would create jobs.
All the while LeMieux used his Senate seat (courtesy of Crist) to blast President Barack Obama's "job-killing" policies and establish the conservative voting record his campaign now touts. He propped up a national debt clock outside his office.
"It's the classic definition of a hypocrite, saying something and doing the opposite," said Everett Wilkinson, chairman of the South Florida Tea Party.
LeMieux maintains he could oppose the stimulus in general but support individual projects. "Once the money has been appropriated," he said, "Florida should compete for it. We pay more money in (to federal coffers) than we get back. I'm not going to let that money go to California."
On the campaign trail, LeMieux is talking a lot about another form of hometown funding — "earmarks," the name for pet projects lawmakers pack in the federal budget for bridges, roads, parks, defense contractors, and so on.
"I never supported an earmark. They're a soft form of corruption," LeMieux said on the first day of his campaign in April, a shot at Republican rivals Adam Hasner and Mike Haridopolos.
Hasner, the former state House majority leader, and Haridopolos, current state Senate president, have sought scores of local projects reaching into the tens of millions of dollars.
In the 2007-08 budget alone, Haridopolos requested $96 million. Hasner tried to get more than $54 million. Only some were funded.
Over a decade, for example, Haridopolos was able to get about $43 million, considerably low compared with past Senate presidents.
"A penchant for earmarks shows that, in my view, you are not conservative on fiscal issues," said LeMieux. He declined to single out projects he considers wasteful and agreed many seem worthwhile on the surface.
"Did I support legitimate projects and legitimate government spending?" Hasner asked. "Yes, I did. Just like Marco Rubio did, just like Dan Webster did," referring to two well-respected Republicans.
Haridopolos echoed Hasner that the state budget process requires each request to be public, with the lawmakers' name attached. Until recently, the earmark process in Washington lacked disclosure.
"Everything we do is in the sunshine," Haridopolos said.
Still, the issue could be a liability. Hasner and Haridopolos have pledged not to seek earmarks if elected.
LeMieux entered the Senate in September 2009 as earmarks were becoming a dirty word. Scandals like the "Bridge to Nowhere" and documented links between earmarks and campaign contributions pushed the time-honored practice to the forefront.
In January 2010, LeMieux declared he would not seek earmarks. He later joined top Republicans in a call for a moratorium, which was later adopted.
Earmarks by themselves are a blip in the overall budget picture. In 2009 there were $15.9 billion worth, about one-half of 1 percent of the $3.5 trillion spending plan. Instead LeMieux views them as a "gateway drug." The hometown pork has the effect of buying lawmakers' votes for the overall budget even if it is too large for their taste, he said.
LeMieux still voted for spending measures loaded with other lawmakers' earmarks, including hundreds of millions for Florida obtained by Nelson and retired Republican Sen. Mel Martinez.
One of LeMieux's first votes was in favor of earmarks. He sided with a mix of Republicans and Democrats (including Nelson) to table an effort to strip earmarks out of the Save America's Treasure Program, a popular magnet for political pork.
In each case, LeMieux says he had not yet made up his mind on earmarks. He justifies efforts to get stimulus funds by saying it was money that was already appropriated. "What I didn't do is add to spending."
Neither do earmarks, experts say. "Earmarks do not increase overall spending amounts," said Josh Gordon, policy director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan group that wants to eliminate deficits. "They just carve out what spending has been agreed on and direct it to specific projects."
If Congress does not say where, it's up to the executive branch to decide. Even then, lawmakers seek funding by working the phones or sending letters.
That has largely been the case with the stimulus. Letters poured into agencies from House and Senate offices. Among them were requests from ardent earmark critic Sen. John McCain of Arizona, according to documents obtained by the watchdog Center for Public Integrity, which published a report called "Stimulating Hypocrisy."
Many Florida Republicans who voted against the stimulus wrote letters. Then came LeMieux, who criticized the stimulus and railed against Obama but still went after the money.
In a letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood about high-speed rail, LeMieux raved about the benefits to commuters and tourists and the jobs the project would create — effectively making the argument for the stimulus effect Obama said it would have.
"I strongly support the state of Florida's application for high speed rail funds," LeMieux wrote on his Senate letterhead, "and I urge you to fully fund these important projects."
Times/Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report.