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The "good old days' weren't

Published Oct. 13, 2005

Ben Williams, a big, rough state representative from tiny Port St. Joe in the Florida Panhandle, might have passed his entire brief political career in utter obscurity had not he taken it on himself, for reasons never fully explained, to file a bill to break up Dade County. One of the Miami television stations invited him down for an on-the-air interview. As the legend goes, he cashed in part of the bus ticket the station had sent him, pocketed the money and had the Florida Highway Patrol shuttle him home, relay style, with each trooper handing him off to another at the county line. He also charged two suits to the station's hotel room.

This was in 1965, the same year the Florida Mobile Home and Recreational Vehicle Association set out to get house trailers off the personal property tax rolls. The Legislature promptly obliged, but it wasn't until 1979 that the lobby felt it prudent to shut down the private restaurant it had set up to serve free liquor and thick steaks to legislators and their guests. All they had to do was show up. Some showed up often. A few showed up with crowds.

Well into the 1960s, the House clerk's office maintained a secret lounge under a Capitol stairway where lawmakers could repair for a drink, or two, or three, while following House debate by loudspeaker. The liquor was furnished by the liquor lobby. (Leon County was, at the time, legally dry.) During the 1959 and 1961 sessions, Dick D'Alemberte, now an insurance agent in Chattahoochee, was one of the assistant clerks whose duties included tending the bar.

"We had two major jobs," he recalled the other day. "One was to keep the equipment running and the secretaries happy. The other was to make sure that the things the lobbyists were sending out got to where they were supposed to go. We would set up for the parties at the farms out in the country and they would tell us where to pick up the liquor and we would distribute it."

On one occasion a legislator's young secretary complained that her electric typewriter wouldn't work. "She didn't realize you had to plug an electric typewriter into the wall," D'Alemberte said. "She didn't know. She was there for other reasons."

Some lobbyists brought prostitutes to Tallahassee. Recalling his freshman session in 1961, one lawmaker later told me how he and a colleague, answering an invitation to a party at a hotel, had found the room occupied by naked women. One legislator left. The other stayed. It was about that time, when hotel rooms still had transoms, that a prominent lobbyist was heard to catch his partner in an act of unprofessional conduct. "You know them w----s is for the legislators!," he is said to have shouted.

The Pork Chop Gang, as the rural members who controlled the Senate were known, regularly caucused at a fish camp owned by the small loan industry's most influential lobbyist. Some Pork Choppers were known to borrow money from lobbyists.

It did not end with reapportionment. Sarasota, Miami and other communities sponsored all-expense-paid "legislative appreciation" weekends for which lobbyists largely footed the bills. Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte _ Dick D'Alemberte's brother _ president-elect of the American Bar Association, who represented Dade County in the House from 1966 through 1972, recalls dining with other legislators at the Silver Slipper, a leading Tallahassee steak house, when someone said to the waitress, " "There's a lobbyist that just passed by. Go give him our bill.' " D'Alemberte said he and another legislator paid their own bills, but the lobbyist was stuck with everyone else's.

While serving as chairman of the House Insurance Committee, Dade Rep. Carey Matthews pulled strings with regulators for a failing insurance company that was paying him legal fees. The Legislature couldn't smell the conflict, but Matthews finally resigned his seat after pleading guilty to fraud. Former Sen. George Hollahan of Miami, defeated in 1972, confessed later to having accepted "referral fees" from a lawyer who lobbied for clients Hollahan had sent him. Hollahan's bribery indictment was dismissed on a technicality. Yet another Dade senator, Ralph Poston, was reprimanded by the Senate in 1977 for using his office to enhance his private ambulance business.

You noticed, perhaps, that this all happened long ago. Much has been written recently about current legislative ethics, including pending criminal charges against legislators for failing to report trips that lobbyists gave them. But it would be hard to say that the situation is worse than it used to be. In times past, legislators had not required themselves even to report gifts, much less turn any down.

What has changed the most _ and for the better, not for the worse _ has to do with society's expectations. But though those expectations have improved, the behavior of too many politicians has not. A subsequent column will speculate on the reasons.

Martin Dyckman is associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times.