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Special interests fill Mike Haridopolos' Senate campaign coffers

TALLAHASSEE — Whether it's trial lawyers vs. the business community or workers comp doctors weighing in on pill mills, some of the biggest battles of the lawmaking session left their mark — and money — on the U.S. Senate campaign of Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos.

An analysis of the $2.5 million Haridopolos raised in the first quarter of 2011 shows how the Republican received his biggest chunks of money from the special interests who wanted something out of the 60-day legislative session.

The city with the most generous Haridopolos donors: Tallahassee, the state capital, where lawyers, consultants, lobbyists and business people contributed $194,335.

Haridopolos said earlier in session that contributions wouldn't sway him.

"They're buying into my agenda," the Republican said in March. "I'm not buying into theirs."

Haridopolos' spokesman, Tim Baker, pointed out that Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson has long been a recipient of a who's-who of special interests in the U.S. Capitol. Nelson raised almost $1.6 million in the first three months of the year.

Legislators are banned from raising money during session because of the appearance of trading favors for contributions. The exception to the session fundraising ban: lawmakers running for federal office.

Haridopolos said the session was a success because lawmakers cut spending and reduced taxes. Long a proponent of limiting lawsuits, Haridopolos presided over a Senate that passed the most tort-reform measures since 2003.

Trial lawyers, playing defense, poured money into Haridopolos' campaign. Morgan & Morgan employees and their relatives contributed the most — almost $77,000.

Because the Senate watered down some lawsuit limits, some privately grumbled that the Morgan & Morgan money made a difference.

But William Large, who heads the Florida Justice Reform Institute, said that's not the case because "Haridopolos did the best he could do with the Senate he had."

"There are a lot of people who see a leader, such as Senate president, who can control the agenda and they make campaign contributions in the hope of controlling that agenda," Large said, "But at the end of the day, it didn't make much of the difference."

Large said the Legislature got a "B plus" for making it tougher for trial lawyers to sue businesses. The Florida Medical Association, though, said the session was an "A" for the medical-malpractice limitations that ultimately cleared the House and Senate.

John Morgan, head of Morgan & Morgan, couldn't be reached for comment. Steve Schale, a spokesman for the trial-lawyers lobby, says the Florida Justice Association doesn't participate in federal elections. He said trial lawyers were beat up this session "but it could have been worse."

Two bills that passed shielded teaching hospitals run by Shands HealthCare system and the University of Miami from lawsuits. Doctors and a few employees of UM, which has sought sovereign-immunity protection for about a decade, contributed about $16,350 to Haridopolos, though Shands officials didn't appear to contribute.

Employees of one influential health care company, Miramar-based Automated Healthcare Solutions, accounted for $55,200, the second-highest amount of contributions to Haridopolos.

With Haridopolos' backing, the firm was active in pushing a bill tightening reporting requirements for a prescription-drug monitoring database. The firm, along with Haridopolos, also unsuccessfully fought a provision restricting many doctors from dispensing painkillers in their offices. Automated Healthcare Solutions makes software used primarily by workers comp doctors who dispense drugs in house.

In a sign of how important health care is in a state that will spend $29 billion in its health and human services budget, doctors, health insurers, clinics and chiropractors contributed the most of any industry to Haridopolos: about $432,000. Those in real-estate, development and building contributed the second-highest amount — about $402,000 — followed by lawyers ($381,000), and lobbyists and consultants ($268,000).

Of the lobbying firms that contributed the most to Haridopolos, Pennington Moore & Dunbar was first, with $31,550, followed by Ron Book P.A ($21,900) and Smith & Ballard ($19,600) — the 10th-largest contributor who lobbied for four of the top 10 Haridopolos donors.

Not every contributor wanted something out of Haridopolos during session. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and his wife contributed $4,800 last quarter to Haridopolos, who supported Huckabee in his 2008 presidential bid. Huckabee formally endorsed Haridopolos on Thursday.

Haridopolos was also able to vote against and appease one industry simultaneously: the agricultural lobby, which ponied up $81,800 and successfully fought a provision of an immigration bill that required employers to use the E-Verify federal system to check whether a worker had the proper documentation for employment. The measure failed in Senate, but Haridopolos voted for it.

Robert Coker, a vice president for U.S. Sugar, actively lobbied against e-Verify but contributed to Haridopolos.

"He has been a good friend and a good advocate for business," Coker said.

One Republican primary opponent, former state House Republican leader Adam Hasner, criticized Haridopolos for failing to pass the e-Verify check.

Haridopolos faulted the House for not taking up the immigration bill that ultimately passed the Senate and said it didn't matter if he lost the e-Verify vote.

"Sometimes I win and sometimes I don't," he said. "But I'm someone who's never afraid to take on a tough fight."

Times political editor Adam C. Smith contributed to this report.

Special interests fill Mike Haridopolos' Senate campaign coffers 05/12/11 [Last modified: Thursday, May 12, 2011 7:31pm]
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