From 30-year-old community college professor to Florida Senate president, Mike Haridopolos' political rise has been steady and methodical.
Two years in the Florida House; elected to the Florida Senate in 2003; on the short list to be Charlie Crist's lieutenant governor in 2006; Senate president 2010-present; now a candidate for U.S. Senate.
At his side all along has been Frank Tsamoutales, a low-profile lobbyist. Haridopolos calls him one of his closest political advisers.
"He offers good advice. I don't always take it, but I think he's a very smart guy and he's been around the block,'' Haridopolos, 41, said of his fellow Brevard County Republican, who regularly meets with him in the Senate president's office.
Most ambitious politicians have top strategists and fundraisers. But the degree to which Haridopolos' interests and Tsamoutales' have repeatedly overlapped is striking and sometimes controversial.
• One of Tsamoutales' clients and closest friends pays Haridopolos $5,000 a month — $60,000 a year — for amorphous consulting duties. Haridopolos was admonished by the Senate last month for failing to disclose the source of that income.
• Tsamoutales helped persuade Haridopolos to earmark $20 million toward a biomedical development 200 miles from his district. The developer, a Tsamoutales client, now faces criminal theft charges, accused of bilking taxpayers out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
• Tsamoutales' wife and father have served on the Brevard Community College board of trustees, Haridopolos' former employer.
• Haridopolos bought a Lennar Homes investment property in Mount Dora days after Tsamoutales registered as Lennar's agent, which both say is sheer coincidence.
"I'd like to think he trusts me,'' said Tsamoutales, 50. "I trust him, though we sometimes disagree."
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Tsamoutales is hardly among the most recognized or elite lobbyists in Tallahassee, despite some top-tier clients including communications giant Harris Corp., Honeywell and Caesars Entertainment.
But on Florida's Space Coast, the lobbyist/developer/consultant is a prominent power broker who has built close ties to politicians ranging from Jeb Bush to Mike Huckabee.
"He stays mostly under the radar, but if I was going to hire somebody to do some work for me, I would hire Frank,'' said Jason Steele, a Republican activist in Brevard. "He puts his head down to get the job done, and he's made a lot of connections with powerful people over the years."
Tsamoutales cut his political teeth working on Tom Gallagher's 1986 gubernatorial campaign and then as a top fundraiser for Republican gubernatorial nominee Bob Martinez.
Two years later the Orlando Sentinel profiled the 28-year-old "business-political prodigy" starting to draw attention in Brevard County with development deals. Tsamoutales said he planned to be worth at least $10 million in five years.
A Republican activist steered Haridopolos to Tsamoutales when the young teacher started looking at running for office.
"When you're Greek and you live in a small bedroom community and share an interest in politics, there's a good chance you're going to get to know each other,'' said Tsamoutales, who has helped financially support and advise Haridopolos on every campaign.
Their bond is also personal: Kim Tsamoutales, Frank's wife and the daughter of former Orlando Magic coach Brian Hill, has cystic fibrosis that led to a double lung transplant. Dr. Stephanie Haridopolos, Mike's wife, was her doctor and friend, and Tsamoutales said she helped save his wife's life.
Tsamoutales is best known for bundling checks for Republican candidates — and by his estimate at least $7 million to combat cystic fibrosis — but he and his companies have contributed more than $80,000 to Florida Republicans and the state party since 2001.
Tsamoutales has also drawn his share of controversy. In 2002, he faced a criminal investigation over accusations he defrauded his cousin in a real estate deal, though nothing came of it. Tsamoutales called it "an unfortunate incident initiated by a very distant and troubled relative who I barely knew."
He was at the center of questions about appointments to a state-funded economic development board, accused in Florida Today of helping secretly rig the process along with Haridopolos. They denied it.
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The Senate president makes no apologies for his close association with Tsamoutales and says his friend never had inappropriate influence.
Indeed, Tsamoutales' client list has not grown with Haridopolos' ascension.
But Haridopolos has listened to Tsamoutales' pitches.
In 2005, Haridopolos pressed then-Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Colleen Castille to issue a permit for a company represented by Tsamoutales, Tallahassee-based NuShore, to install an experimental beach restoration system in Brevard. Haridopolos helped secure $9.8 million in state funding for Brevard to use NuShore, county records show. He said it was merely a case of suggesting an effective and cost-effective approach to beach restoration.
In 2007, Tsamoutales pitched Haridopolos and then-state Rep. Adam Hasner on an ambitious inner-city Miami redevelopment project controlled by client Dennis Stackhouse. Haridopolos and Hasner both sought $20 million earmarks for the project, though it never made it into the budget after questions mounted. Stackhouse now awaits trial on charges of bilking hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money.
Haridopolos said he never met Stackhouse and stressed that Hasner and members of the black caucus talked up the deal.
"(Frank) brought it to my attention, but from all the information we received, just like everybody else received, it sounded like a good deal," Haridopolos said.
Around 2004, Haridopolos started consulting for Market Share Systems, a subsidiary of Melbourne-based Appliance Direct, represented by Tsamoutales. It's a company led by Sam Pak, a Korean immigrant and zany TV pitchman in the Orlando area.
Since 2007, Haridopolos says he has earned $5,000 a month from Pak, though he's vague on services provided.
"I understand the big picture in the state of Florida, whether it's big business, finance or where the economy's going,'' said Haridopolos, noting that he's on call for Pak to discuss anything from Florida economic trends to national politics.
Tsamoutales is Pak's Appliance Direct lobbyist but said he has never been paid. He calls Pak one of his closest friends and confirmed they are partners in a real estate holding company. People might question a conflict of interest for Haridopolos, he said, but there's nothing to it.
"That's ridiculous," Tsamoutales said. "He sells washers and dryers. He doesn't have work before the Florida Legislature. We just monitor things for him."
Then there is the Mount Dora investment home Haridopolos failed to disclose. On June 22, 2006, the senator and his wife bought the Lennar model home in a gated community — nine days after Tsamoutales registered to lobby for Lennar. Haridopolos said that Tsamoutales had nothing to do with it, that he didn't even know Tsamoutales ever lobbied for Lennar, and that the investment proved to be "a disaster" that has lost him tens of thousands of dollars.
E. Royce White, a Republican blogger and activist in the Panhandle, said he thinks the questions about consulting contracts and undisclosed sources of income are too damaging for Haridopolos to be a viable challenger to Democratic incumbent U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.
"It sounds like he's a lobbyist for all purposes while serving as a legislator," White said. "I know there are degrees of separation when you say you're a consultant for marketing and stuff, but you couple that with he forgets about $100,000 in income and a $400,000 house, and I'm sorry."
Times researchers Caryn Baird and Shirl Kennedy, and Times/Herald reporter Marc Caputo contributed to this report. Adam Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.