Former state Senate President Ken Pruitt resigned abruptly at the end of the spring legislative session, so when an indictment came out last week suggesting a public official had accepted a bribe, some people tried to connect the dots to Pruitt.
But Pruitt says he did not accept $87,000 from indicted lobbyist Alan Mendelsohn as part of a scenario spelled out in court filings last week.
"That's ridiculous," Pruitt said Wednesday. Mendelsohn, a Broward County eye doctor, is accused of diverting some of the more than $2 million in campaign contributions that he collected from others to his personal use.
Pruitt said he has not been contacted by anyone investigating Mendelsohn and knew nothing about the investigation or indictment until he read it in various newspapers.
He has not hired a lawyer and regrets his initial failure to respond to questions from reporters who called him last week after the explosive indictment was released.
Prosecutors charged Mendelsohn with lying to federal investigators when he bragged about his ability to bribe certain public officials. The indictment mentions an unnamed public official who was given payments totaling $87,000 between 2003 and 2006. The money was allegedly funneled through a third party who agreed to be an intermediary.
Pruitt said he doesn't know how much money Mendelsohn contributed to his campaign accounts or the political action committees he established while he was in the Legislature.
"Alan was the epicenter of fundraising," Pruitt recalled. "Whenever anyone wanted money, who do you think one of the first calls was made to? Alan Mendelsohn."
Pruitt said his relationship with Mendelsohn was no different than his association with a handful of other lobbyists who frequently helped him raise money for campaigns.
"Alan was a big talker, some of the others weren't as obnoxious, but when you are raising millions, you learn to separate the ones who are just flapping their gums," Pruitt said.
He recalls only one occasion when he had a private dinner with Mendelsohn and another lobbyist to discuss fundraising. He says Mendelsohn was often at fundraisers and events where other lawmakers and lobbyists were present.
Pruitt said he is concerned that some people think he got more than contributions from Mendelsohn and is worried that some will keep their distance from him until the federal investigation is over.
"We may never know who got the $87,000," he said.
Pruitt resigned from the Senate in May saying he wanted to spend more time with his family and seek employment that would enable him to earn more than lawmakers' annual $31,000 salary. He would have been forced to leave the Senate next year because of term limits.
The Port St. Lucie Republican now works for Weiss, Handler, Angelos & Cornwell, a law firm with offices in Boca Raton and Port St. Lucie. He says he wants to use his knowledge of government bureaucracies to help those who need help with public policy. He has registered to lobby the executive branch but won't be able to lobby his former legislative colleagues until 2011.
Pruitt says he was puzzled to hear that federal investigators were questioning former Sen. Mandy Dawson, a Democrat from Fort Lauderdale, about Pruitt's decision to appoint her to chair a health care committee in a Senate dominated by Republicans. He said he made the appointment because she knew health care issues and to help her end her legislative career on a high note, following a tradition that saw some leadership jobs go to minorities.
Dawson told reporters this week that she was questioned by federal investigators who wanted to know how she got the job. She said she does not know whether she is being investigated.