TALLAHASSEE — The unlimited special-interest cash streaming into Florida legislators' political accounts has enriched a small group of influential consultants who received $19.5 million from political committees and campaigns in the 2008 election cycle.
The torrent of money flowing through the Capitol has also fueled an industry of consultants who lobby.
Of the 60 political consultants for lawmakers' political committees, at least 12 work as lobbyists, according to a Times/Herald analysis. The consultants-lobbyists are hired by corporations to influence the same legislators who pay them for political help.
This circular network ties together special interests, lobbyists and lawmakers in a tight web of money and insider access. The lobbying clients seek legislative help. The legislators seek cash, for re-election or pet causes. The common link: the consultant.
Roger "Rocky'' Pennington, a veteran Republican consultant, says consultants must strike a careful balance when special interests want to hire them because of their relationships with specific lawmakers.
"Once they start hiring you because they want influence with one person, you aren't a lobbyist — you're an influence peddler," Pennington said. "You have to ask yourself, are you lobbying because of the merits of the issue or are you lobbying because of your friendship or relationship with the elected official?"
Pennington was paid $2.1 million over the past two years to serve as political adviser to a host of lawmakers and to buy expensive TV ads for them. He says he minimizes problems by refusing to take clients halfway through the session, when clients most try to influence the votes of individual lawmakers, and he now is semiretired with only one client, the Municipal Electric Association.
Just last week, Altria, which manufactures Marlboro cigarettes, hired one of the Capitol's newest lobbyists, Todd Richardson. He's a political consultant for Republican Rep. Ellyn Setnor Bogdanoff of Fort Lauderdale.
Bogdanoff chairs the House Finance and Tax Council, where Altria hopes to kill a plan to raise the cigarette tax.
"What I'm doing is completely legal," Richardson said. "Relationships are the name of the game. I have more relationships than with just Ellyn. I have relationships with a lot of freshmen and with almost every member of the House."
Richardson was paid $126,000 in wages and reimbursements in his role as a consultant for Bogdanoff's campaign and political committee, Creating Possibilities. Bogdanoff opposed a cigarette tax hike long before Altria hired Richardson. She said she had no problem with his other work as a lobbyist for the cigarette company.
As the full force of term limits takes effect in the Legislature, more lobbyists are becoming consultants to increase their access to new legislators, said consultant and lobbyist Joe Perry.
The lobbyists can build up "sweat equity'' by acting as consultants for legislators, said Perry, a Democrat who has been paid $209,000 for fundraising and consulting work since 2007.
Perry acknowledged that when special interests hire people who have been on the payroll of lawmakers, they hire a unique commodity.
"There's no doubt we have access to these folks and probably more so than the rank-and-file lobbyists," Perry said.
But he said there's a downside, too. Perry lobbies for insurance giant FCCI Insurance Group, which seeks workers' compensation legislation opposed by many Democrats — the same people who hire Perry for political work. Perry said he can't afford too many conflicts like that.
"If I were to take too many lobbying clients and create a lot of enemies, I'll kill my fundraising business," he said.
Political committees — called committees of continuing existence — are the cash cows of Florida's political process. They are formed by legislators and used to collect unlimited amounts of so-called soft money from special interests, as these contributions are not subject to the typical cap of $500. The money can be rolled into other committees called "electioneering communication organizations,'' which buy attack ads and direct-mail pieces.
The 12 consultants-lobbyists were paid about $374,000 in total by the 40 committees they worked for, and received an additional $3.5 million from other political groups and campaigns during the past election season. The 60 consultants altogether received about $1 million from the committees and $18.5 million more from virtually every campaign and political group.
Not all consultants-lobbyists worked for a lawmaker's committee in the past election cycle. Still, the political committees — and the relationship they foster between lawmakers and consultants — offer a window into the world of Capitol insiders.
For example, the committees give lawmakers the opportunity to steer business to allies and friends. Consultant-lobbyist Esther Nuhfer earned most of her $201,000 from the campaign and political committee of her friend, Republican Rep. David Rivera of Miami.
Rivera's committee, Future Leadership, also paid $10,000 to Bridget Gregory Nocco, a prodigious Republican fund-raiser and Rivera friend.
The big money washing through the Capitol stands out in a year when the budget is in the red and large numbers of Floridians are losing jobs. Against that backdrop, the idea of consultants who lobby makes even the king of Florida political consultants uncomfortable.
Randy Nielsen, a top Republican consultant, said he didn't want to "cast aspersions'' on his colleagues, but he warned that "you can do a disservice to the client if you lobby them."
Nielsen is not a registered lobbyist.
"I don't see how you can give clear, unfettered advice if you're paid to lobby your clients," Nielsen said.
Nielsen's firm, Public Concepts of West Palm Beach, raked in the most consulting money this election cycle: $4.1 million over the past two years. In the 2000 cycle, Public Concepts earned $390,000. Not all that money went to Public Concepts. As with other consulting companies, some of the cash paid for media buys, lawyers and investigators to do opposition research.
Public Concept's most high-profile client is Senate President Jeff Atwater, a Republican from North Palm Beach who calls Nielsen "my consultant'' and made sure the firm reviewed his speech to the Senate that opened the legislative session March 3.
Consultant-lobbyist Bill Helmich collected $297,000 from a variety of lawmakers and political groups for consulting and hiring help. Helmich acknowledged there is a risk in mixing lobbying and consulting.
"Theoretically, if you get involved in a race where you end up losing, the person who won could hold a grudge," he said.
Lawyer and lobbyist David Ramba represents 37 clients and sells legal advice to 40 political committees, many controlled by legislators. Ramba said his legal adviser role doesn't give him much of an advantage. "Most of the time I'm delivering bad news," he said. "I tell them what they're not allowed to do with their money."
For instance, Ramba told Republican Sen. Mike Bennett of Bradenton that money from one of the lawmaker's two committees was off-limits to help pay for a Jewish community dinner.
Bennett has raised $528,000 through his two political committees since 2007 and he acknowledges the balancing act legislators engage when their closest political advisers are also paid lobbyists.
"You're going to give your buddy as much leniency as you can until you hit that ethics line … wherever that line is. It happens in any friendship," he said. "If I had my druthers and you didn't need soft money to play the game, I would like to see all this disappear."
Times/Herald staff writers Alex Leary and Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.