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Senate chief, lobbyist tangle over policy

Published Aug. 24, 2005

Senate President Tom Lee said a lobbyist who also serves on the state board that governs universities tried to intimidate him into dropping a proposal to ban lobbyists from state education boards.

Steve Uhlfelder was "screaming at the top of his lungs," Lee said Wednesday. Lee also said Uhlfelder claimed to have embarrassing memos about fundraising for last year's Republican Senate campaigns.

Lee said he is considering banning Uhlfelder from lobbying the Senate under a rule forbidding lobbyists from acting improperly to influence lawmakers.

Uhlfelder made the threats in a phone call to a member of his staff, Lee said, and later directly to him over the phone. Uhlfelder made the calls after a St. Petersburg Times reporter asked his reaction to Lee's proposal to ban lobbyists from boards that govern universities.

"There has to be some message sent to people who cannot conduct themselves with respect for this process," Lee said. "Nothing offends me more than that kind of thing. It was arrogant, condescending, it was almost like he was saying, "How dare you make these decisions,' like I had to run them past somebody like him."

Lee said he will not be intimidated or let the Senate be intimidated "by people making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year."

Uhlfelder denied threatening Lee or his staff and said he was not attempting to intimidate anyone.

"I was very mad, too mad, but I didn't say I had fundraising memos," Uhlfelder said. "I felt he was questioning my ethics and my integrity. He criticizes lobbyists for fundraising but he fundraises from lobbyists."

Uhlfelder is a Democrat who is close to Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, who appointed him to the state Board of Governors. Bush also tapped him to head a group to raise money for hurricane victims. Uhlfelder lobbies for American Express, Tenet Health care, UPS and several other clients.

Uhlfelder delivered a letter to the president's office Wednesday apologizing to Lee for his behavior.

"I deeply regret that I called you last night and was disrespectful to you," Uhlfelder wrote. "Your proposal troubled me because I felt it questioned my ability to objectively serve on the Board of Governors, and I take great pride in doing so."

Uhlfelder went on to praise Lee as "one of the best people in government" and said he wants a chance to "re-earn your respect and friendship."

Lee said he considered inviting Uhlfelder to a news conference he held Wednesday so he could demand Uhlfelder show evidence of the fundraising allegations.

Lee said he had no idea what Uhlfelder was talking about but welcomes a debate on campaign fundraising "any time, any place."

"I was angry at two levels," Lee said. "Not only had he stepped way out of line but he wasn't man enough to do it with me, he had to do it to my staff."

Lee was visibly agitated at the news conference Wednesday morning but did not mention Uhlfelder. As word of the confrontation spread, Lee agreed to talk about it.

The proposal that angered Uhlfelder is intended, Lee said, to put distance between the state university system and lobbyists who depend on the Legislature for their livelihood.

He proposed the ban after hearing some legislators were leaning on lobbyists who sit on education boards to force them to approve a school of chiropractic at Florida State University.

"There are 17.4-million Floridians out there. We ought to be able to find a couple of hundred people who can sit on these boards," Lee said.

Lee said Sens. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, and Alex Villalobos, R-Miami, are considering ways to implement the ban. They could enact a Senate rule prohibitting anyone on the boards from lobbying, pass a law banning them, or simply refuse to approve the appointment of lobbyists on the boards.

Bush said there are other ways to deal with the problem but said he will work with Lee to be sure the boards make informed decisions without pressure or threats.

"The issue has been raised because there have been allegations that senators have used their influence, or tried to, and implied that if people who are in this process here don't vote a certain way on an issue, that there could be harm done to their clients," Bush said. "I think that ought to be dealt with differently than taking lobbyists off boards that have proven they can serve well."

Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.