When Gov. Charlie Crist anointed George LeMieux as Florida's new U.S. senator, he did more than hand his closest adviser the plum job of a lifetime.
With a hug and a handshake, Crist transformed LeMieux from a little-known insider ("George LeWho?" one paper asked.) to a majorpolitical figure, suddenly thrust into a spotlight that's illuminating how his public service brought him private profit.
Amid charges of political cronyism and claims he was picked to be the governor's proxy in Washington, there is renewed scrutiny of LeMieux's dealings and those of his law firm, Gunster Yoakley & Stewart:
-The law firm, chaired by LeMieux, helped foreign workers get visas last fall to help build a high-rise hotel and condos in Miami, depriving dozens of Florida workers of jobs at a time of rising unemployment. CBS4 News in Miami first reported the law firm's efforts, which included persuading the U.S. State Department that the Mexican workers had special skills that Americans didn't. In a statement, the firm said LeMieux had no involvement in any immigration matters.
-While serving as Crist's chief of staff in 2007, LeMieux helped secretly negotiate a lucrative gambling agreement with the Seminole Tribe of Florida that was struck down by the Florida Supreme Court as unconstitutional, and has triggered a debate over the expansion of gambling in Florida. LeMieux recently helped negotiate a second compact that the Legislature will consider this fall. He has said the compact will contribute more money to Florida schools and will limit future expansion of gambling.
-Two weeks before LeMieux left Crist's office, Gunster Yoakley landed a $500,000 contract representing the state Department of Transportation on two matters. DOT general counsel Alexis Yarbrough, who signed the contract on Dec. 20, 2007, is the wife of Shane Strum, a deputy chief of staff who reported to LeMieux when he worked for Crist. LeMieux said he played no role in his firm's hiring; DOT has said the firm has special expertise in arcane railroad law. The firm did work for DOT before LeMieux returned there.
-After leaving Crist's office in December 2007, LeMieux earned about $150,000 over a 13-month period as an adviser to state Republican Party chairman Jim Greer, a lucrative sideline that has led some to label LeMieux a "political consultant." He will not discuss what he did to earn that money, which was paid from the party's federal account to his firm, MTC Strategies (named after his sons Max, Taylor, and Chase).
-For the past 15 years, West Palm Beach-based Gunster Yoakley has represented U.S. Sugar Corp., which for months negotiated with Crist's office to sell much of its land to the state and federal government to clean up polluted runoff in the Everglades. LeMieux said he avoided any involvement in the U.S. Sugar deal while working for Crist or afterward. The state's chief negotiator was Eric Eikenberg, a LeMieux protege who succeeded him as chief of staff.
LeMieux, 40, will become the youngest member of an exclusive club when he's sworn in Thursday by Vice President Joe Biden in the Senate chamber.
The soft-spoken Republican appointee emphasized that unlike many of his predecessors who advised governors, he avoided the temptation of millions of dollars in hefty fees he could have earned as a lobbyist.
"I can only think of three former chiefs of staff (to governors) that came out and didn't lobby," LeMieux said. "I wanted to lawyer, and I could have lobbied every agency the day I left ... and I didn't do that. I went back to being a lawyer."
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LeMieux must resign from the firm to serve as a senator, and in Washington he will have to cast votes on immigration and agricultural issues that could affect Gunster Yoakley's client interests.
To date, he has declined to release a full list of his law firm's clients, citing attorney-client privilege, but he has said he will fully comply with Senate disclosure laws. "I have 30 days to file it. I will comply with whatever the law requires," LeMieux said.
Crist said he was not concerned about questions of LeMieux's business dealings.
"I know of his personal integrity, his professional integrity," Crist said. "And I'm comfortable with that."
The governor, himself a 2010 candidate for the seat that LeMieux will keep warm for the next 16 months, said he settled on LeMieux over eight other possible appointees late on the night of Aug. 27. The pool included one current and two former members of Congress.
LeMieux's appointment has brought cries from predictable quarters, such as the Florida Democratic Party. But a random sampling of constituent e-mail to the governor last week - selected by Crist's staff - shows rank-and-file Floridians are deeply divided over the decision.
"Politics as usual," Richard Smith of St. Petersburg wrote to Crist. "I wonder if your principles extend beyond your own political ambitions."
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The leading critic is the governor's Republican rival for the Senate seat, former state House Speaker Marco Rubio, who is especially critical of LeMieux's role in negotiating the gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe.
Rubio, an opponent of gambling, said that during the compact negotiations, the tribe donated at least $700,000 to the Republican Party of Florida and that LeMieux was a paid party consultant during the same period.
"Whose interests were represented in those talks?" Rubio said. "Was it the people's? Or was it George LeMieux's or Charlie Crist's?"
Rubio also criticized the U.S. Sugar deal, saying the state will pay more for the land than its appraised value. "It's a bailout of the company," Rubio said. "It's a complete one-sided deal. Same thing with the Seminole deal, and the common denominator of both is George LeMieux."
Said LeMieux: "I think that the speaker thinks he's running against me."
Some Democrats have praised Crist's pick. They include U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Boca Raton; Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler, a former Democratic legislator; and former Attorney General Bob Butterworth, who served as a child welfare secretary under Crist. LeMieux, like Crist, is seen as a moderate who frequently consulted with Democrats on policy matters.
"George is politically mature much more than his years," said Butterworth, who worked closely with LeMieux. "I think the world of George LeMieux. He's a moderate, and he cares about the issues."
At the same time, some Republicans are outraged. Ed Havill, the elected property appraiser in suburban Orlando's Lake County for 33 years, said he switched his party affiliation from Republican to Independent in protest over the appointment.
"By choosing his 2006 campaign manager, George LeMieux, the governor decisively demonstrated two things," Havill wrote in an Orlando Sentinel op-ed. "He is only interested in what's best for Charlie Crist, and he has utter contempt for what's best for Floridians."
Crist said he appointed LeMieux because he's a man of utmost integrity who will faithfully represent the best interests of Floridians. The two men appear to be political clones of each other and joke that all they disagree on is their pro football loyalties: Crist likes the Bucs, and LeMieux, a Broward native, likes the Dolphins.
"Obviously, the governor and I share a lot of common beliefs. I think that's a part of the reason I think he felt comfortable appointing me," LeMieux said. "But I'm my own man, and I'm going to call them like I see them and do what's right for the people of Florida."
LeMieux planned to fly to Washington over the weekend and make final preparations to take Mel Martinez's place - and to be called "senator" for the rest of his life.
Times/Herald staff writer Shannon Colavecchio contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.