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Finances debated in comptroller's race

For years, Florida's elected banking regulator was an amiable former pharmacist and Pinellas County clerk by the name of Ray Green. Then word got out that Green had begun serving as president of a Tallahassee bank at the same time he was the state's chief bank regulator. The public also learned that Green had invested in an insurance business along with one of the state's most powerful bankers, Ed Ball.

Green eventually retired from office in 1965, citing stress and poor health.

His successor was Fred O. "Bud" Dickinson, a business promoter and minor political figure from West Palm Beach. But in 1974, a federal grand jury was poised to indict Dickinson. The charge: secretly pocketing cash from bankers.

Clearly, the times demanded a reformer.

Enter Gerald Lewis _ a Harvard-educated lawyer and former state senator, widely known as a crusader against special interests. In a bitter election battle, Lewis railed against Dickinson's ethical problems while refusing donations from bankers.

Lewis won and vowed to change the state's banking department.

Over the years, he has, observers agree. But some critics say the office has changed Lewis, too. And, like his predecessors, Lewis finds himself awash in controversy.

Despite the controversy, Lewis is the strong favorite this year to defeat a little-known opponent, St. Petersburg investment adviser Chris Comstock, for the right to serve a fifth four-year term.

Still, there have been plenty of questions about Lewis.

First, Lewis remained in office past his self-imposed two-term limit. Then he began accepting campaign contributions from bankers and brokers.

In the mid-1980s, one federal grand jury investigated his office, although it did not return charges. Then, this year, another grand jury indicted a prominent Democratic political fund-raiser on charges of using Lewis' name _ as well as names of other prominent politicians _ to extract huge bribes from an investment company. In between, bankers occasionally have complained of arm-twisting.

Through it all, Lewis has never been charged with any wrongdoing. He denies any knowledge of the alleged bribery scam. And he says he was vindicated by the indictment, which showed that he never received any bribe money.

Comstock has refused to accept money from bankers or brokers, just as Lewis once did. But Comstock, a Republican and a political novice, has struggled for contributions and attracted little attention.

When he finds an audience, Comstock keeps the heat on Lewis. Lewis has gotten too close to the industries he regulates, Comstock says, pointing to Lewis' $1-million war chest.

Comstock even tries to blame Lewis for Florida's share of the nationwide savings and loan scandal, especially the failed CenTrust Savings Bank of Miami. CenTrust's chairman, David Paul, contributed substantially to Lewis' campaign four years ago.

"I think it's a disgrace that a Cabinet officer should have that much negative notoriety," Comstock said recently.

Lewis reacts sharply to the criticisms of his campaign methods and his office. And he says the attempts to link him to the savings and loan scandal _ and the CenTrust failure _ are merely political. Officials in Lewis' office say they moved against CenTrust as quickly and aggressively as they could, given legal limitations and sluggish federal officials.

In addition, Lewis says he never promised to limit himself to two terms. Besides, he says, he is doing a good job, so why quit?

As for campaign contributions, Lewis is a longtime supporter of public financing for statewide political races. But until public financing comes about, he says he is not going to limit himself, as he did in previous races against opponents who weren't so choosy.

As for the problems, Lewis admits they existed _ once. But Lewis says he has cleaned up his office since the early 1980s. No one gets preferential treatment now, if they ever did, he says.

"I've run a good, honest, professional office," he said recently.

Money curse

Is there a force that inevitably drags Florida's comptroller into controversy? Is there some curse on the office?

Yes, critics say. It is the curse of campaign money.

Many observers, including bankers, say Florida's unique system of electing its banking regulator creates a powerful potential for conflicts of interest. Candidates for the obscure office can raise hundreds of thousands of dollars from the banks and brokerages, and hardly anyone notices.

Florida is the only state that has such a system. All others appoint the people who regulate their banks and savings and loans.

Some critics even agree with Comstock that Lewis' office might have gone easy on institutions that contributed, including some that have gone under.

"We can see the real harm that results (in) the savings and loan crisis," said Bill Jones of Common Cause, a private, non-profit government watchdog group. "I really think this is our worst scandal," he said of Florida's system of electing key regulators with the financial support of their industries.

"Oh, yuck," said congressional banking lobbyist Peggy Miller of the Consumer Federation of America, when told about Florida's system. "It is somewhat troubling because (the system) can be so easily manipulated."

The criticism is nothing new.

A constitutional reform commission in 1978 proposed making the comptroller's office and other Cabinet posts appointed, rather than elected. But Florida voters defeated those proposals.

The comptroller is elected by dint of a constitutional provision with roots dating to the 1830s. As a member of the seven-member state Cabinet, the comptroller also votes on a number of important state policy issues, especially in education and the environment.

Observers agree it is unlikely that the shape of the Cabinet will change soon.

Florida's method of regulating banks still could change.

For one thing, the Legislature could move bank regulation to another office simply by passing a law, said Sen. Curt Kiser, R-Palm Harbor. But in a Legislature dominated by Democratic allies of Lewis, that isn't likely to happen soon, Kiser said.

As recently as 1986, a Senate committee staff report recommended shifting bank regulation out of the comptroller's office.

In addition, some federal officials have called for ending state regulation of banking altogether.

They argue that the savings and loan fiasco occurred in part because states began to compete with the federal government for the right to regulate savings and loans. One of the ways states encouraged S&Ls to remain state-chartered rather than switch to federal oversight was by giving the S&Ls increasingly broad and financially risky powers.

Why would a state want to keep regulating savings and loans? More political contributions for state politicians, said Edwin J. Gray, former chairman of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board.

"By keeping their state-chartered thrifts, S&L political contributions would continue to flow," Gray testified this month before a U.S. congressional committee.

Lewis, 56, opposed the elected Cabinet as a state senator. He now says that electing the comptroller and other Cabinet members makes those regulators more responsive.

Comstock, 47, says he prefers to make the bank regulator's job an appointed one under the secretary of state.

Even if voters agree with Comstock, he does not have the money to spread his message far and wide by television. He has raised only about $30,000.

By comparison, Lewis has raised more than $1.1-million, much of it from the financial industry.

Comstock says he was surprised by the difficulty of raising money outside the financial industry. But he said he is not sorry he made the choice.

"Sometimes you wonder," Comstock said recently. Lewis may have collected hundreds of thousands from financial institutions, but refusing the money is the right thing to do, he said. "You don't want to be compromised."

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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