WASHINGTON — Up until he was appointed as Florida's newest U.S. senator, George LeMieux was advising a secretive pro-oil drilling coalition that is pushing a bill through the state Legislature to open up the Florida Gulf Coast to drilling.
But LeMieux, who could have to vote on drilling legislation, refuses to say what he did, and the leader of the industry group says he cannot remember.
"As far as his contribution, I can't really say specifically," said Doug Daniels, a Daytona Beach lawyer who is touring the state on behalf of Florida Energy Associates' effort to overturn the drilling ban.
LeMieux quit working for the group when Gov. Charlie Crist named him to fill the final 16 months of retiring Sen. Mel Martinez's term, Daniels said.
But LeMieux's involvement revives questions about the role he played for business clients after he stepped down as Crist's chief of staff in 2007, and how those interests could shape his views as a senator.
"Floridians are entitled to wonder about how much his prior corporate employment is going to affect his decisions," said Ben Wilcox, chairman of the board for Common Cause, a good-government advocacy group. "This is something that occurs when people go in and out of public life."
The U.S. Senate is weighing its own legislation to open up offshore drilling. The Florida delegation, including Martinez, has opposed past efforts, but the Republican LeMieux said he supports them.
LeMieux's ties to Florida Energy Associates came to light only because he had to file a financial disclosure form with the Senate. It showed that the prodrilling coalition paid him at least $5,000 as a lawyer for Gunster Yoakley & Stewart. There is no way of telling how much he earned because lawmakers are required to report only "compensation in excess of $5,000."
Florida Energy Associates is made up of mostly unnamed small oil companies that want to bid on any new leases the state legislation aims to create.
It has hired lobbyists, public relations experts, a financial consultant and a pollster. Public opinion surveys for the group have shown broad support for drilling off Florida's coast. It has given at least $125,000 to both political parties in Florida.
Some of LeMieux's other clients included TECO Energy, Southern Wine & Spirits of America, Florida Power & Light, Mosaic Fertilizer and Hewlett-Packard. Two weeks before LeMieux left Crist's office, Gunster Yoakley landed a $500,000 contract representing the state Department of Transportation on two matters. It had not previously done work for the DOT.
LeMieux has denied cashing in on his Crist connections.
"I could have lobbied every agency the day I left … and I didn't do that. I went back to being a lawyer," the newly minted senator said in September when his connections were first questioned.
When the St. Petersburg Times asked LeMieux about the Florida Energy Associates work last week, he cited attorney-client privilege and referred questions to the group.
But Daniels said this week that he could not recall what role LeMieux played in crafting the bill that top Republican Rep. Dean Cannon of Winter Park championed late in the 2009 legislative session, taking many by surprise.
The bill passed in the House but not the Senate. It will return in 2010, with more support. Advocates say they will prevail. It would allow the sale of drilling leases in state waters off Florida's Gulf Coast.
"There were times we were all sitting around the table," Daniels said. "He was not in a position to lobby. It was more providing advice.
"I really don't want to characterize it because I can't recall what he said. The only thing I can recall was him being a stickler for what he could do and what he couldn't do."
On the day he was sworn in, Sen. LeMieux sounded like he was holding the antidrilling line Florida lawmakers in Washington have typically taken. He boldly said he was putting a "hold" on a bill that would expand drilling.
"Given the importance of this issue to Florida, I would like to be consulted before any efforts or agreements are reached to advance legislation dealing with drilling in the Gulf of Mexico," LeMieux wrote in a letter to Republican leader Mitch Mc-Connell.
Because the Senate operates "unanimous consent" rules, one member can slow things down
But LeMieux said he favors drilling if done safely and if Florida gets its share of the profits.
That's a stance that Crist adopted last year, shedding his long held opposition to drilling for fear of hurting Florida's tourism industry.
Alex Leary can be reached at email@example.com.