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Stuart denies interest conflict

The chief of the state agency that regulates professionals ranging from doctors to funeral directors stayed free at the home of a lobbyist friend, then awarded his law firm a department contract.

But Department of Professional Regulation Secretary George Stuart said the $9,800 consulting contract he awarded to George Sheldon in December was not a conflict of interest.

"I would not consider it violating any public trust, any public law, any public policy or any public rule," Stuart told the Tampa Tribune in a story published Wednesday.

State law allows government agencies to award contracts of up to $10,000 without seeking competitive bids. Stuart said other companies were considered, but Sheldon's law firm got the business because of its experience.

Stuart, a former Democratic state senator from Orlando whose personal financial difficulties were documented during a brief campaign for governor, said he stayed with Sheldon, a former state representative from Tampa, during the first month of Gov. Lawton Chiles' administration.

The consulting contract awarded to Sheldon Cusick & Associates was intended to help coordinate transferring some functions of the state's social service agency to DPR, Stuart said.

Sheldon helped write the legislation creating DPR in 1979. His partner, Mike Cusick, is a former legislative staff director for social services.

"It might appear to be a conflict, but personally I don't think it is," Sheldon said. "I could see how it might appear that way. We have not benefited as a result of my relationship with George."

Sheldon is registered to lobby for Procter & Gamble, the Nature Conservancy and the National Association of Social Workers, among others.

In January 1991, Chiles prohibited his staff from accepting any gift, meal or free travel worth more than $2 from people who do business with the state, but later gave his agency heads flexibility to make their own policy.

Stuart said he decided his employees would pay their own way, but can accept some items worth more than $2 _ such as a free meal at an industry banquet _ from special interest groups.

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