1. Archive

In House race, it's a matter of money

One thing both candidates in the race in for U.S. House District 7 know a lot about is money. Democratic incumbent Sam M. Gibbons is the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, a powerful and influential committee overseeing appropriations and taxation. He's chairman of that committee's Trade Subcommittee, which oversees legislation on foreign trade whose worth exceeds $700-billion.

On the personal income side, Gibbons voted for a 40 percent congressional pay raise, often takes the maximum in honoraria paid by special interest groups and, through contributions from political action committees (PACs), has amassed a small fortune he can retire with if he chooses.

Republican challenger Charles D. Prout III, 47, is making his second run for office, failing in a bid for the House District 64 seat in the Florida Legislature two years ago. He has been president or director of 28 corporations and has sold everything from corn futures to aircraft movie projection systems to spaghetti.

Prout says he has been a millionaire twice and has been declared bankrupt twice. He has been sued more than 20 times for money owed, including gambling debts. Today, five years after losing everything, he runs the American Pasta and Grille Restaurant in Valrico and waxes philosophical about his past financial failures.

"I've been a successful businessman and I've gotten back on my feet," Prout says. "I look at it as speed bumps in the road of life."

Trained as a lawyer, Gibbons has been a politician since 1952. He has spent six years in the Florida House, four years in the Florida Senate and 28 years in Congress.

Prout made his first million with his Panorama travel business, but the Atlanta-based company went bankrupt in 1972, he said, "because of the fuel crunch."

He later operated a string of film processing booths, worked as a commodities broker selling corn and orange juice futures, owned a trucking company and ran a real estate investment firm renovating homes in Tampa's Hyde Park.

Along the way Prout was sued repeatedly.

In the early 1980s, for instance, four Atlantic City casinos sued Prout for a total of $26,776 in gambling debts. Prout says he did gamble, but on these occasions instead used casino lines of credit to get cash for real estate investments.

In 1984, Prout's debts reached $518,736 and he was forced to liquidate everything under Chapter 7 of the Federal Bankruptcy Code. He blames the problems on an in-law who "was embezzling from my trucking business."

Now, Prout says, he pays cash for everything and doesn't "owe anybody a damn dime."

Prout says he has spent $3,000 in his campaign. That's most of what he's collected. He calls Gibbons PAC money a "slush fund" and favors outlawing PAC contributions from outside a congressional district while limiting PAC contributions inside a district to a total of $1 per constituent. In District 7, which includes the city of Tampa and all but the northern reaches of the county, that's about $265,000.

Gibbons got more than $1-million from PACs from 1983 to 1988, according to a survey by Common Cause _ more than all but five members of the House of Representatives.

Because of his seniority on Ways and Means, Gibbons is a frequent recipient of fat PAC checks. In the last 21 months, 244 PACs have sent his campaign more than $280,000 combined.

Since January 1989, when Gibbons began his 14th term, his campaign has spent $58,099. But his war chest at the end of last month still bulged with $670,338. Federal law allows Gibbons to take that money with him when he retires or is ousted from office, but he vows he never will.

"I'll probably spend it on an election campaign or I'll give it all away to charity," Gibbons says. "I don't intend to take that money with me; it's not mine."

For the moment, though, Gibbons says he needs the money to fight off the Republican Party, which he says has "targeted" him because he is the only Democratic representative on Florida's West Coast.

And a study by Gibbons' office says most of his PAC money comes from constituents, with 75 percent of the $280,200 received since 1988 from companies and associations with employees and members in District 7.

Gibbons says PAC contributions deserve to be protected under the Bill of Rights.

"I think it's part of the First Amendment for people to get together and say what they want with their money," he says, adding that strict disclosure of "who gave it, who got it" is the best protection against special interest influence.

Prout also has been critical of his opponent's vote to raise his pay, calling it "an insult" when congressional leadership was calling for a tax increase at the same time.

Gibbons was a consistent supporter of the congressional pay raise increasing House members' annual salaries from $89,500 to $96,000 this year and to $125,000 in 1991. The pay raise carried with it a ban on honoraria, which are speaking fees that some critics say are little more than money paid by special interest groups to influence congressional votes.

Gibbons has always asserted that his vote can't be bought "for love or money," and he has bluntly said he needed the honoraria to make ends meet.

In 1989, he accepted $2,000 in speaking fees from 13 groups ranging from the Association of Food Industries to the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. In 1990, he took $26,850, the maximum amount of honoraria allowed by law.

Gibbons said he considers the fees for the lectures earned money and that he would need the pay raise if the honoraria were to be prohibited.

Gibbons likes to say he is not a rich man. This year, he has four sources of income, three homes _ including a one-bedroom condo in Washington _ and two used Oldsmobiles.

He gets $8,050 a month for his work on Capitol Hill, $167 a month in retirement benefits for his 10 years in the Florida Legislature, an average of $2,238 a month for speaking engagements and a Social Security check for living to be 70.

As for Prout, he owns his Davis Islands home and his restaurant and lives on its receipts plus some consulting fees.

"I think my experience has made me a better person," Prout says. "I'm paying taxes, preparing a budget, paying payroll taxes, buying gas. Sam Gibbons isn't doing that _ he's sitting up there in his ivory tower."