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  1. Opinion

Ruth: The Tallahassee cash collectors

Back in 2005, Sen. Tom Lee, R-Holier Than Thou, strutted about as the Diogenes of Tallahassee, slapping himself on the back for pushing through an ethics gift ban that prohibited the capital's lobbying cartel from directly lathering up legislators with freebie drinks, meals, trips and other tokens of appreciation for their stout-hearted commitment to good government.

Stop rolling your eyes. On second thought, go ahead.

Of course, Lee's Potemkin-like effort to curb the pernicious flow of money to the Florida Legislature cured nothing. While money-changers could no longer directly pick up a lawmaker's tab, they seized on a loophole in the 2005 law allowing them to contribute as much as they wanted to a politician's Committee of Continuing Existence. That allowed gobs of money to be spent on supporting other candidates, or meals, or travel, entertainment and personal expenses. These are called legalized bribes.

Then in 2013, Florida's elected grifters passed another ethics law banning the committees of continuous existence. And overnight, Tallahassee became a Brigadoon-like paragon of morality, the highest ethical standards and a pillar of unquestioned scrupulous conduct by Florida's elected officials.

Cue: "Ave Maria." Or perhaps not.

Money seeks its own level. So does shamelessness. So it only makes perverted sense that once the CCEs were eliminated, Florida's public servants would find another way to collect their tributes from Tallahassee's Parliament of Pimps. In a case of Three Card Monte legerdemain, the CCEs were simply reconstituted as individual legislator political action committees. And — poof! — all the baksheesh, all the gratuities, all the cash flowing to House and Senate members became perfectly legal again. Of course that still doesn't make the slush funds right.

Lee, R-Brother, Can You Spare A Franklin?, has taken in $1.8 million to his dubious The Conservative political action committee scam, helped by generous donations from Anheuser-Busch, U.S. Sugar, Duke Energy and Walt Disney World, corporations no doubt who hope the senator will use the money to advance the study of economist Milton Friedman.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Why Yes, I'll Have Another, has sucked up $3.3 million from about 800 benefactors for his Florida Leadership Committee. We all know leadership doesn't come cheap.

Other statesmen in the Legislature who have created their own political action committee con games include Democratic Sen. Chris Smith's Florida Future, Republican Rep. Erik Fresen's Floridians For a Strong 67, and Republican Rep. Matt Hudson's Making The Right Call for Florida, which is probably a reference to his committee's office phone number.

In all, Michael Van Sickler of the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau, reported some 74 state legislators control 84 political action committees' legalized extortion schemes in Tallahassee. Or put another way, perhaps the Florida House and Senate should replace their fancy desks with brass stripper poles.

By the law created by the very Legislature that permits members to abuse it, Tallahassee's Merchants of Venality are permitted to reimburse themselves for expenses related to the stated mission of their shell come-ons. That has allowed Lee, R-Lobster Bib, to collect $15,511 for fancy dinners and hotels, all in advancing his PAC's charter to promote "responsible government policies."

Nothing says responsible government more than a grueling stay at California's trey tony Lodge Pebble Beach paid for by money laundered through a nebulous political action committee funded by a spittoon of lobbyists.

Latvala, R-Feedbag, whose endless search for "leadership" has taken him to some of the state's most chi-chi restaurants, has been reimbursed $7,286. When asked about his spending, Latvala burped he deeply resented the questions as "borderline harassment" to inquire about an elected official using his office as if he was the Galloping Gourmet, when he was otherwise engaged in more pressing matters of state.

Ahem, Latvala, R-Sommelier, is not Klemens Von Metternich negotiating the Treaty of Fountainbleau. His constituents have a right to know who he has hit up to pay his bar tab.

Instead of doing the people's work, politicians are engaged in the endless rush to glom on to money, perks and privileges, including this egregious example of lobbyist lap dancing.

Over the past year, lobbyist Guy Spearman has flown lawmakers, including Latvala and Republicans Rep. Ritch Workman and Sen. Denise Grimsley, around Florida on his personal turbo-prop aircraft.

"I'm friends with them," Spearman explained, which is vexing enough. But since the flights were billed as political fundraising trips it's all "perfectly legitimate."

And who says so?

The Florida Legislature says so.

Whew, for a moment there, we might have had an ethics problem.

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