Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Opinion

This dinner's a real eye-opener

Only in Tallahassee, the Potemkin Village of prevarication, could you put six state senators, a fancy-pants lobbyist and a Daddy Warbucks political contributor in a swanky restaurant's private dining room and have the whole sordid scene dismissed as an innocent social gathering where there was not a single improper utterance regarding pending legislation of keen interest to all the happy revelers.

But there they were: Senate Majority Leader Lizbeth Benacquisto, Fort Myers, along with her Senate Republican chow line mates, Aaron Bean of Ponte Vedra Beach, Anitere Flores of Miami, Andy Gardiner of Orlando, Denise Grimsley of Sebring and Garrett Richter of Naples.

Over the pricey vittles at the capital's Shula's 347 Grill, the half-dozen were joined by lobbyist Dave Ramba, who is more wired than the space shuttle, and Bradenton optometrist Dr. Kenneth Lawson, who heads the Florida Optometric Association.

You can rest assured no open-face sandwiches were ordered by anyone.

With enough winking and nodding to resemble a bobble-head doll, Benacquisto explained to Mary Ellen Klas of the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau on Wednesday night that everyone had simply gathered to thank Lawson for being the generous and productive fundraiser for the state Republican Party.

You may proceed with your spit-take.

With a tut-tut here and a harrumph-harrumph there, Benacquisto insisted that even though Ramba and Lawson have been pushing for legislation that would permit optometrists to prescribe oral medications — a measure zealously opposed by the Florida Medical Association and especially ophthalmologists — not a peep, not a murmur, not even a sotto voce whisper relating to the bill came up during the repast.

Baghdad Bob had more credibility.

Who'd have guessed that much like many sports teams, Tallahassee would have Throwback Night where the Legislature dresses up like Tammany Hall? This was so Tallahassee circa 1978.

Why would anyone think of something untoward? Merely because Richter is the sponsor of the optometrist bill? And Flores and Grimsley are on the Senate Health Policy Committee, chaired by Bean, that is considering the measure? How could anyone arrive at the cynical conclusion that just because all the parties involved in expanding the optometrists' authority were together in a private meeting at a high-roller restaurant with the Senate majority leader that this might look a bit hinky?

Benacquisto revealed that the talk pretty much revolved around Shula's to-die-for creme brulee — which may or may not cause near-sightedness requiring a drug prescription to cure.

Don't be alarmed. That sonic boom you just heard was Senate President Don Gaetz's forehead hitting the top of his desk. It was Gaetz, along with House Speaker Will Weatherford, who promised to make ethics reform a priority. They want to clean up Tallahassee's well-earned reputation for being more scruple-challenged than Rod Blagojevich with a cellphone in his hand.

Only days before, members of the Florida Legislature had attended a seminar on ethical behavior. Perhaps the Oysters Rockefeller Six had a schedule conflict to practice memorizing the Miranda Rule.

For this sort of private meeting is a major no-no under Florida's wide-ranging yet often regarded as quaint Sunshine Laws. The law states that any time three or more elected members meet in private to discuss legislative business, the meeting must be open to the public.

None of that happened here.

Dear President Gaetz, two words: refresher course? It's just a thought.

In order to believe that no Sunshine Law violations occurred you have to buy into the canard that six powerful members of the Florida Senate broke bread with a clout-filled lobbyist and his influential client — who has a bill at play this legislative session and is a major GOP sugar daddy — and not one sentence relating to official business passed anyone's lips.

Let's take a vote. No surprise there: six yeas to 19 million nays.

For the sake of absurdity, suppose Benacquisto is telling the truth. If she is, for the senators not to recognize the optics of the dinner would make them the six most addled members of the Legislature.

That's no small accomplishment.

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