TALLAHASSEE — Senate President Don Gaetz's right-hand man has been running his own political consulting firm, allowing him indirectly to rake in more than $400,000 from some of the same special interests that have a stake in influencing legislation.
For the three years ending in 2012, Chris Clark, 41, took a leave of absence from his state job when the legislative session ended and went to work as Gaetz's campaign manager.
The lucrative arrangement Clark carved out for himself underscores the web of financial ties special interests have with the Legislature as staff often cycle in and out of government and the private sector, developing relationships with the very lobbyists who have a financial stake in influencing them.
"It's a practice that Democrats and Republicans have used without any serious problem that I'm aware of," said Gaetz, R-Niceville, in defending Clark.
Clark's dual role as campaign consultant and legislative staff member is allowed by law as long as he doesn't work on the campaign while on the state job.
Still, Clark's consulting deals stand out for two reasons: the sheer size of the raw dollar amounts and the fact that Gaetz made a show of standing against special interest money by leading a charge to abolish some of the very political committees that helped fund his chief of staff.
The money, according to state campaign finance records and Senate documents, was paid to Clark and his company, CM Consensus, through three sources: Gaetz's state Senate campaign, a political committee Gaetz controls, and the Republican Party of Florida.
Clark described the role he played for Gaetz as "complete campaign work" that covered developing a fundraising strategy, scheduling, billing, event planning, and mail and television advertising. Gaetz faced token opposition or no challengers in his last two campaigns.
RPOF spokeswoman Susan Hepworth said Clark worked for Gaetz at the party, serving as a general consultant to various Senate campaigns. His job included developing a voter contact plan, coordinating phone and mail advertising, event planning, and working on candidate recruitment, she said.
As chief of staff and Gaetz's confidant, Clark is the most powerful staff member in the Senate. He can influence the flow of legislation, where bills get heard in committee and which lobbyists' amendments get a hearing. Text records show that during the final days of the legislative session that ended in May, lobbyists were in frequent contact with the Senate chief of staff.
Gaetz not only allowed Clark to circulate back and forth between his state job and campaign work, he also gave him hefty pay raises at a time when the Florida Legislature denied state workers pay increases. Gaetz gave Clark 10 pay increases, including three raises in each of his first two years on the job.
When Gaetz named Clark his chief of staff in 2012, he boosted Clark's state salary from $76,068 to $150,000, making him the highest paid staff member of the Florida Legislature. He said the increase was justified because Clark "took a significant pay cut when he came to work for me six years ago."
Before Gaetz hired Clark in 2005 at $128,000 to run his first Senate campaign, Clark made $82,500 as chief of staff at the Department of Corrections. But what Gaetz didn't mention was that between 2009 and 2012, he gave Clark nearly half the year off to work on his and other Republican campaigns. His compensation: more than double his state salary.
Gaetz's top contributors were health care companies and doctors, the sugar industry, utilities and the private prison industry, each of whom had high-stakes bills before lawmakers. In addition, Clark was paid $62,500 directly from the party for what the party lists as "payroll."
Gaetz said he doesn't know how much his campaign paid Clark over the years but the amounts include campaign victory bonuses as well as compensation "for his time and skill."
He emphasized that Clark was the sole consultant he hired and noted that since Gaetz became Senate president, Clark has not taken a leave of absence or worked on campaign activities.
State law prohibits government employees from working on partisan political activities while on the job. Clark said he refrained from campaign activities while on state time. "They were two separate roles," he said.
During the final days of the legislative session, records and media reports show that Clark made himself available to lobbyists who exchanged text messages with him about what bills were coming up for a vote and which amendments were getting considered. The series of text messages over a five-minute period of time on May 1, two days before the Legislature was scheduled to adjourn, offered a window into the close relationship Clark has with lobbyists.
"Chris, I'm begging you for your help here," wrote Randy Enwright, a lobbyist for fertilizer manufacturer Scotts Miracle-Gro, in a text message obtained by the Jacksonville Times-Union. Enwright is a former director of the Republican Party of Florida and is a political consultant during campaign season.
Enwright complained to Clark about an amendment that would remove a measure fertilizer lobbyists helped get added to an environmental bill, HB 999. The measure imposed a three-year moratorium on new local fertilizer rules and was vigorously opposed by environmental groups who think phosphorous runoff is contributing to the degradation of the state's rivers and estuaries. Environmentalists brought in former Florida Gov. Bob Graham, a Democrat, to lobby against it.
"We hear fertilizer is coming out because of Bob Graham," Enwright wrote Clark. "That is absurd."
Clark responded: "Need to chill everyone out for just a second and let me see what we can do."
Clark said he could not make available any other text messages with lobbyists from the session because Senate rules allow him to delete all messages "when I no longer need them."
As a campaign manager, Clark didn't need to run a competitive campaign because Gaetz faced little or no opposition.
In 2012, Gaetz won a one-sided contest against no-party-affiliated candidate Richard Harrison after raising $717,000 for the state Senate race and $325,000 for the Florida Leadership Alliance. In 2010, Gaetz ran unopposed but raised and spent $345,000 for his campaign.
In November 2012, after Clark returned to the state payroll from the campaign, Clark's company received a $10,000 check for "consulting." Gaetz said it was a "win bonus" Clark had earned before he became chief of staff.
One Senate document shows that Clark was granted permission to work a total of 50 to 60 hours on weekends for his consulting company from May through November 2010, and another gives him permission to take a leave of absence over that same time period.
Senate rules require that legislative staff receive approval to get paid to work on a political campaign as a second job. Clark obtained permission only once, in 2010, and said he believed that covered him for subsequent years.