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Lobbyist's drug arrest causes stir in capital

About midnight on March 14, police pulled over a white Chrysler several miles north of the Capitol.

The car held more than just insurance lobbyist Brian Hennessy.

Police found 12 grams of cocaine, plus more than $8,000 cash in a zippered pocket of a golf bag locked in the trunk. Hennessy had another $807 and 1.5 grams of the drug in his wallet, according to the report.

Why did Hennessy have the stash, and what did he plan to do with it?

It's a question that has this town's politicos abuzz, especially after one of Hennessy's fellow lobbyists offered an answer.

The woman says she suspected Hennessy was trading drugs for favors at the state Capitol. When she passed that on to her bosses _ Hennessy's clients _ she was fired, according to a lawsuit she filed late last month.

The lawsuit has stunned veteran political players, who readily acknowledge the role booze, bucks and even women play in shaping legislation, but who insist they've never encountered drugs as part of that mix.

The case has even caught the eye of local State Attorney Willie Meggs, who has assigned an investigator to review the lawsuit and interview people involved.

But Meggs said Friday he'll wait to see what develops in the civil suit before pursuing a criminal investigation.

"We've got suspicions but no eyewitnesses that he did some of it (drugs) with other people," Meggs said.

Hennessy has pleaded not guilty to the criminal charges.

A lobbying tradition

Entertaining lawmakers is a time-honored tradition in the capital city. Lobbyists buy sports tickets, expensive meals and drinks, all of which are reported on expenditure reports filed with the state.

At Clyde's, a popular watering hole a block from the Capitol, lobbyists carry tabs so lawmakers can drink for free. (Owner Dave Ericks, himself a registered lobbyist, said he now requires lobbyists to be present and approve all drinks on their tabs.)

But Lois Tepper, a 10-year employee with Sarasota-based FCCI Insurance Group, began to suspect late last year that lobbyists hired by her company were having too much fun.

According to the lawsuit Tepper filed last month, she and other FCCI employees began openly discussing whether Hennessy was supplying an unnamed FCCI executive, company lobbyists and even legislators with cocaine during the 2001 legislative session.

Both Hennessy, 41, and Tepper, 47, declined to comment for this story.

After visits by Hennessy and the FCCI executive, Tepper and other employees noticed a marked change in the executive's behavior, the suit says. Once she found traces of a white, powdery substance left on a desk, according to her suit. Tepper said a fellow employee tasted it and identified it as cocaine.

Kelly O'Neal, a former secretary with FCCI's Tallahassee office, last week recalled secretive back-room meetings that appeared to change the demeanor of the people who gathered for them.

"I couldn't tell you if it was caffeine or what . . . There was a back door and people would congregate," O'Neal said last week. She said she didn't see the white substance and wasn't the employee who tasted it.

"We had discussions and we were concerned that something was going on," O'Neal said.

After Hennessy was arrested, his second arrest on drug charges, Tepper e-mailed FCCI President G.W. Jacobs about her suspicions.

"As you know, we have fought hard to change the workers' compensation law, and now I wonder if our success is a direct result of illegal activity by our "lobbyists' and the legislators who carried water for us on the Capitol," Tepper wrote May 29.

"Why would Brian Hennessy have thousands of dollars of cash in his car along with large amounts illegal narcotics? GW, where did he get the money to buy the drugs and where did he get the cash he had in his car," she continued.

Jacobs answered her e-mail three days later, and less than a week later she was fired, according to the lawsuit. Tepper's attorney, Steven R. Andrews, provided the St. Petersburg Times with the e-mail.

"We have concluded our investigation and have not found any policy violations by any of our employees," Jacobs wrote. (Lobbyists often work on contract and are not employees of the firms they represent. For example, Hennessy actually worked for the Rogers Towers law firm but was a contract lobbyist for several companies, including FCCI).

Jacobs told her to share any factual information she had with Senior Vice President Tom Koval. Neither Koval nor Robert Hawken, one of FCCI's chief lobbyists who had an office in the same building as FCCI, returned phone calls from the Times.

Other FCCI lobbyists who returned calls from the Times said they hadn't heard about the lawsuit or knew nothing of its claims of drug use.

FCCI did release this statement from Jacobs: "FCCI holds itself and its employees to the highest ethical and professional standards. The allegations of the complaint are totally unfounded and have no basis in fact whatsoever.

"We absolutely deny any wrongdoing and look forward to refuting the allegations in court," Jacobs added.

Rep. Jerry Melvin, a Fort Walton Beach Republican who was involved with insurance bills last session, said he was stunned by the lawsuit.

"My jaw is dropping," Melvin said. "We were basically leading (the insurance package) and nobody offered me anything."

Rep. J.D. Alexander said he was told about the lawsuit 30 minutes before getting a call from the Times. He, too, said he was surprised.

"I have never been near anyone in the Legislature" suspected of using drugs, said Alexander, R-Lake Wales. "Most of them are too serious about what they are doing."

Several Hennessy clients contacted by the Times said they hired Paul Sanford, a partner with the firm Rogers Towers, to assemble their companies' lobbying team.

Sanford said he never knew about Hennessy's prior arrests when he hired him in February 2000 to become a lobbyist in training. According to state records, Hennessy had been arrested in 1992 and charged with felony cocaine possession. Florida Department of Law Enforcement records show adjudication of guilt was withheld and Hennessy was assigned probation for the charges.

And if Hennessy's sister, fellow Rogers Towers lobbyist Jane Hennessy, knew about the arrest, she apparently didn't tell. Jane Hennessy did not respond to an interview request from the Times.

"We were unaware of that at the time. It just didn't come up in that process," Sanford said.

"We didn't hire him to represent any particular client," Sanford said. Rather, Sanford said he hired Hennessy for his personality and easygoing manner and to train as a lobbyist.

"Brian has been friends with a number of people," Sanford said. "He's very personable, he's very smart."

Sanford declined to say how much Hennessy is paid, though he is now on suspension.

Hennessy's attorney won't discuss the pending charges. But he has plenty to say about Tepper's lawsuit.

"There's no evidence that anyone distributed anything to anyone. It's an assumption," said Hennessy attorney Tim Jansen.

"They didn't even allege he did it," Jansen said. "They said they were concerned . . . It reminds me of when you cross-examine a witness and you say, "Are you still beating your wife.' "

_ Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.