Senate President-elect Ken Pruitt used an appearance at a political club Friday to defend himself against recent news stories scrutinizing his rise to power through aggressive fundraising.
Pruitt is a longtime associate of West Palm Beach political consultant Randy Nielsen and Richard Gentry, a lobbyist for the Florida Home Builders Association. Nielsen and the association are among the defendants in a defamation lawsuit filed by state Rep. Paige Kreegel, R-Punta Gorda, over attack ads that ran against her during the 2004 election.
"I'm a witness, just as if I were on the curb witnessing a car accident," Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, told the Capital Tiger Bay Club.
Pruitt's ties to the two men are among many issues raised in the past month by the Palm Beach Post in a series of articles detailing Pruitt's anticipated ascension to one of the three most powerful jobs in state government.
Pruitt, a member of the Legislature since 1990, has frequently hired Nielsen's company, Public Concepts, for campaigns for his office and other pet issues. Gentry and the Home Builders Association, who also work with Nielsen on campaigns, have been generous donors to Pruitt and political committees he controls.
Pruitt told the Tiger Bay crowd he had been subpoenaed for a deposition in the Kreegel case.
"I never, ever did anything to Rep. Kreegel, and never ran a negative ad in Rep. Kreegel's district," Pruitt said. "I will not take responsibility for any type of campaign that I did not have control over."
Among the joint efforts he has had with the Home Builders Association, he told the crowd, was a 2003 mailer sent out to tout the work of eight lawmakers who backed Pruitt's pet issue of keeping the state's Bright Futures Lottery Scholarships intact.
Anticipating the crowd would ask him about the newspaper stories, Pruitt came prepared with a brown accordion folder, from which he pulled out a receipt and some of the 2003 mailers.
Pruitt said he gave $36,000 to the association, covering about half the cost of the mailers. The mailers featured Sens. Nancy Argenziano, R-Dunnellon; Lisa Carlton, R-Osprey; Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton; Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach; Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey; and Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach. Also featured were Reps. Kevin Ambler, R-Lutz; and Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton.
Jennifer Liberto can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or email@example.com.