A federal grand jury meeting today will begin investigating allegations surrounding Harold Lewis, former inspector general for Gov. Lawton Chiles, and Tim Howard, the lawyer who served as liaison with trial lawyers who helped the state sue tobacco companies.
U.S. Attorney P. Michael Patterson declined Monday to answer questions about the grand jury or the investigation that was referred to him by state officials.
The investigation began last fall at the request of Attorney General Bob Butterworth after Howard's former secretary told state officials about a series of loans Howard made to Lewis.
Lewis and Howard say the loans totaling more than $24,000 were strictly a matter between friends. Lewis was in a personal bind and needed help, Howard told the Times last fall.
Lewis said he needed the loans to avoid filing for bankruptcy. Lewis was paid a salary of $95,693, but says he was in financial trouble because he was trying to pay back debts from failed business deals and developments dating to the 1970s. He resigned his job after the allegations were made public.
Leon County State Attorney Willie Meggs asked federal authorities to take over the investigation in March after determining that the allegations are more likely subject to federal rather than state law.
At the heart of the investigation are innumerable loans made to Lewis by Howard and dozens of other Floridians, many of whom did business with the governor's office.
Many of those who loaned money to Lewis said they did so out of friendship and didn't expect
to be repaid because Lewis frequently borrowed money. But others were seeking favors from state government at the time they made the loans.
A longtime associate of the governor, Lewis has been a frequent hunting companion and helped Chiles engineer passage of the law that made it easier for the state to file suit against tobacco companies.
Lewis was also a frequent traveling companion of Chiles. They met in 1954 when Lewis was attending Boys State and Chiles was an adult counselor, and they were fraternity brothers at the University of Florida. A few years later, Lewis helped Chiles run his first political campaign for the Legislature.
Chiles appointed him his chief inspector general in late 1994. Lewis subsequently recommended Howard, an attorney who worked for him when Lewis was general counsel at the Agency for Health Care Administration, to become the tobacco trial team's liaison with Chiles.
The investigation was sparked by a team of trial lawyers who raised questions about the loans after hearing rumors that Howard was funneling money to Lewis.