Republican Senate President Jeff Atwater, who wants to be Florida's next chief financial officer, ignored a blatant conflict of interest and named a new energy committee chairman whose wife is a lobbyist for the secretive group pushing offshore drilling. That taints the integrity of the Senate's deliberations on drilling.
Atwater tapped Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, one of the Legislature's most politically savvy operators, to oversee the Committee on Communications, Energy and Public Utilities. Diaz de la Portilla's wife, Claudia, has been representing Florida Energy Associates, a shadowy group of Texas oilmen who are trying to usurp two decades of smart, bipartisan Florida policy banning offshore drilling.
Atwater has cast yet another layer of self-dealing into the mix, making it hard to trust his promise that the issue will get an objective vetting. Diaz de la Portilla said he has proven before that he is not beholden to his wife's clients and won't be this time. But his chairmanship gives the appearance of further stacking the deck for the oil drilling group, which has hired dozens of high-profile lobbyists but refuses to identify who is underwriting its campaign. The group already has a pair of powerful Republican acolytes, the anticipated next leaders of both legislative chambers, Rep. Dean Cannon of Winter Park and Sen. Mike Haridopolos of Melbourne, who believe the industry pitch that offshore drilling will somehow save the state's fiscal woes even as it risks destroying tourism. Now Atwater has given it a third insider — and every time Diaz de la Portilla's committee takes up the issue, the chairman's motives will be in question.
Atwater wisely slowed the debate earlier this year when he refused to consider a special session on oil drilling. But with Diaz de la Portilla's appointment, Atwater must assume full responsibility for making sure the Legislature doesn't capitulate to a band of anonymous, cash-carrying out-of-staters who could care less about Florida's tourism businesses and world-renowned beaches. Atwater hopes to move into the CFO job next year. But voters should see how he handles this job first.