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GROUP BEHIND PUSH STAYS IN SHADOWS

Florida Energy Associates won't say who runs its show other than it's about a dozen entities from four states.

The only way Floridians will ever learn who's behind Florida Energy Associates is if the Legislature approves letting the company drill near the state's gulf beaches.

"We're not shadowy, or we don't want to be," said Doug Daniels, a Daytona Beach lawyer now touring the state for Florida Energy Associates to promote overturning the drilling ban. Once the law is changed, he said, the process for applying for the leases will require making their names public.

For now, the only oilman identified as a principal is M. Lance Phillips, 49, who boasts that his family has been involved in drilling "since there's been oil in Texas."

When Tampa Bay's Agency on Bay Management put on a forum about overturning the drilling ban last week, Daniels showed up in person while Phillips listened on a speakerphone. The oilman said little but chuckled at arguments put forward by drilling opponents.

"He's from a good Texas family," Daniels said. "He's a third-generation oil man. I'm a Democrat, but he's a big Republican. He's friends with George W. Bush. He's somebody you'd instantly like."

Phillips, who lives in Mexia, Texas, insists there are far larger oil industry figures involved, and "I'm the small fish in this pond with some of these other fellows." So, why put him in the forefront?

"My face is out there because I'm politically active," said Phillips, who chairs Limerock County's Republican Party and heads up the political action committee of a prominent trophy-hunting group, the Dallas Safari Club.

Phillips wears several hats - high school coach, avid fisherman, exotic-game rancher. Opponents have accused him of being "all hat and no cattle" when it comes to oil drilling experience.

But Charlie Meeks, a geologist who found a massive oil formation near Jay in the Florida Panhandle nearly 40 years ago and is now working for Phillips, says it's not true.

"He's got the cows," Meek joked.

Phillips has coached his son's high school baseball team and helped his college-student daughter get an internship with a longtime friend, U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, the son of former FBI director William Sessions. The congressman's brother Lewis, a lawyer, is also helping with Florida Energy Associates.

Phillips also helped connect the congressman with billionaire financier R. Allen Stanford for campaign contributions. That has become something of an embarrassment for Sessions, since Stanford now stands accused of swindling investors out of $7 billion. Phillips said he helped Stanford only as a favor to Stanford's father, one of his Mexia neighbors.

Phillips attended the University of Texas for four years and says he studied petroleum land management but records show he never graduated. He said he left to work for ConocoPhillips.

He says he subsequently worked for Mitchell Oil and Development for 20 years and also spent some time working with his father, Thomas, at TAP Operating, running oil rigs, until his father died in 1996. Now he works for himself, primarily onshore - but in league with other companies.

"The largest of my current fields is the 10,000-acre George's Creek Field that covers parts of three counties (in Texas) ... and currently has 33 producing wells. I have a joint operating agreement on this field with ConocoPhillips," Phillips said.

A ConocoPhillips spokesman confirmed that Phillips has "a small working interest" in that field.

The Texan says he's no stranger to Florida's shores - but as an angler, not a driller.

"I love coming to Florida to go fishing," he said, noting that he visits the Keys every other year.

The one question Phillips shies away from is revealing who else is intent on reeling in the big prize from whatever oil formation might be beneath Florida's waters. In fact, he apparently hasn't even told Daniels, who identified the group as consisting of fewer than 10 people or companies, all from Texas and California. Phillips said it's actually 10 to 12 entities, from Iowa and Louisiana as well as Texas and California.

"We're not sure we're going to have this opportunity (in Florida), so that's kind of hard to pin down right now," Phillips said. "But that will all be divulged at the time of the lease."

Times staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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