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Legislator's family ties under scrutiny

Published Oct. 6, 2005

Legislators and lobbyists are criticizing Rep. Randy Mackey, D-Lake City, for mixing politics and family when he voted during a committee meeting in favor of a bill for which his wife was lobbying.

"Some lobbyists have brought it to my attention," said Anne Mackenzie, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat and the House majority leader. "I think the member (Mackey) needs to be particularly cautious in this regard."

Mackenzie speaks from experience. She is married to banking lobbyist Walter Law.

"I do not sit on any committee that Walter has clients in front of," Mackenzie said. And she said she has adhered to the policy in the 12 years she dated Law and was engaged.

Several state lawmakers have spouses or children who lobby the Legislature, and they say it takes work to avoid conflicts of interest.

The issue that sparked criticism of Mackey involved a bill to take a small cut of horse track wagers to provide health insurance for employees of the horse owners and trainers. The employees, who exercise and groom the horses, are usually low-paid itinerant workers who have no access to health care.

Legislation to provide the limited medical benefit had been on the books since 1989 but had not been enforced. The bill was strongly supported by the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, a horse owners group.

Mackey's wife, Pamela, is a lobbyist for the horse owners. The bill is opposed by track owners.

The bill passed the Regulated Industries Committee on a 12-4 vote. Mackey is a committee member and voted with the majority.

It was not controversial at first, but an amendment that changed prime winter racing dates turned up the intensity. The amendment passed 9-7 _ Mackey again voting with the majority _ reigniting a long-running fight between Dade County's Gulfstream Park and Hialeah Park over who gets to operate at the peak season.

Mackey and his wife, who was his legislative aide until they married last summer, say they did nothing wrong.

Mackey said the House speaker's office has told him his wife's lobbying activities are not a conflict of interest. Pam Mackey's boss, lobbyist Larry J. Overton, says he checked too. Neither Mackey nor Overton could produce a letter from the speaker's office stating the opinion.

Overton, primarily a health-care lobbyist, said Pam Mackey is helping him "on an as-needed basis" during the session and is not a full-time employee. She often spends her free time at Mackey's office.

"As long as it's of statewide interest and as long as no one is getting special benefit, they said you should vote on it," Mackey said. "We haven't heard any complaint about it."

Pam Mackey brushed aside questions about the matter. "Go ask him," she said, referring to her husband.

Mackey said after he married Pam, he could no longer employ her as an aide under state law.

"The only way we could be together during the session was if she was able to work," he said. "Unfortunately, I'm not wealthy enough for one of us not to work."

Mackey said he thinks one reason lobbyists are attacking him is that parimutuel legislation causes more back-stabbing lobbying tactics than any other issue.

A House rule requires a legislator to disclose his interest before voting on a bill "which inures to his special private gain, or to that of a member of his family" or to their employer.

Kathy Putnam, a spokeswoman for the House, said general counsel Ross McSwain has ruled that Mackey's situation does not require such disclosure.

"They're talking about direct financial gain," Putnam said. McSwain "said that's not the case. There's no special private gain to either the member or the spouse."

Yet legislators have filed disclosures over much less.

Last year, Rep. R. Z. "Sandy" Safley, R-Clearwater, disclosed an interest in the Florida Prepaid College Tuition program before voting on a bill relating to it. "I have two children, ages 10 and 13, who are participants in this program," he wrote. The letter is filed with House Clerk John Phelps.

So is a disclosure from Rep. Irlo "Bud" Bronson, a Kissimmee rancher. The Democrat declared his interest in the outcome of legislation on cattle-dipping vats. "There are several dipping vats on property which I own, causing a conflict of interest," he wrote March 1. "Therefore, I will not vote on this bill."

Last year, Rep. Ron Glickman, D-Tampa, declared a conflict of interest on a bill barring physicians from referring patients to clinics in which they own an interest. Glickman's wife is a doctor.

Although lobbyists and legislators have been grumbling about the Mackeys, there is no evidence that anyone has filed a complaint.

A complaint about a lobbyist or legislator is confidential until the complaint is dismissed or found to have merit.