The “Super-Lobbyist”

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Oh don’t bother reading it.  Just sign on the bottom line.  It’ll all work out, I promise.

Once in a while, I’ll draft a post and then I don’t publish it right away because the timing isn’t so great.  The story of the “super-lobbyist” falls into that category.  I thought it best to wait until after the veto period ended before publishing this one.

I think we’re all aware of the sleaze and skeeze in politics, especially Florida politics  and more especially Keys politics.  Perhaps not on a detailed nuts-and-bolts level, but we know it goes on.  We see situations that just don’t look right.

We know this is damaging.  And we know it is costly.  In most cases, it’s impossible to put a real price tag on it.  But when it comes to the Keys wastewater projects, we know it has cost Key Largo taxpayers $26 million.

The “super-lobbyist” I’m referring to is Dean Cannon.  Mr. Cannon is the former Speaker of the House in Tallahassee.  He received some criticism for starting up a lobbying firm even before his term as Speaker was over.  As far as I know, Mr. Cannon hasn’t done anything “unethical” in the narrow legal sense of the word, but his actions certainly did raise a few eyebrows.  From the Orlando Sentinel:

Former House Speaker Dean Cannon Jumps From Legislating to Lobbying

I wouldn’t have been a aware of any of this, and I definitely wouldn’t have cared, except that the iPhone Bandit air-dropped punishing “super-lobbyist” provisions into an early draft of the Mayfield interlocal agreement.

You’ll notice another name in that Orlando Sentinel article, Sen. John Thrasher.  Mr. Thrasher was at one time a state senator, and is rumored to have played a role in killing Rep. Raschein’s bill calling for an elected board for the FKAA.  I can’t say that he actively hurt this much-needed legislation, but he certainly didn’t help.  From the Blue Paper:

A year later voters overwhelmingly (70%) supported a referendum calling for elections rather than Governor appointments to fill FKAA board positions. But again voters were outmaneuvered: Representative Holly Raschein sponsored a supporting bill in the 2013 legislative session, successfully pushing it to a unanimous vote in the House. In the Senate, however, Dwight Bullard dropped the ball. Bullard apparently stood by while then Senate President Don Gaetz sent his companion bill off to “die” in Senator Thrasher’s Rules Committee. Thrasher never even placed it on the agenda.

You’ll also notice that, according to the Orlando Sentinel article, Mr. Thrasher was also, at one time, a lobbyist with Southern Strategy Group, a firm who has represented the FKAA since 2011 or so.  Thrasher was elected to the Senate in 2008 and resigned in November 2014.  I am not aware of any direct business relationship between Thrasher and the FKAA, but it is logical to think that Thrasher’s former colleagues might have had a certain amount of access that others might not.  In fact, it’s been reported that Southern Strategy Group had a great deal of influence over Gov. Jeb Bush.  Could this have been a factor in Bush’s 2005 veto of Rep. Sorenson’s bill calling for an elected FKAA board?

As it turns out, the current Monroe County Administrator, Roman “the iPhone Bandit” Gastesi, was also a lobbyist.  He worked for a firm called, Tew Cardenas, which then morphed into Cardenas Partners, which is now defunct.  My understanding is that Gastesi oozed into the Keys on behalf of a client.  He went to talk to the folks at Marathon about sole-sourcing their entire sewer project to one construction firm.  Sole-sourcing the entire project was not only legally questionable but also just plain stupid from a business stand-point.  Of course, Marathon didn’t go for it.

Tew Cardenas/Cardenas Partners went on to have a long and profitable relationship with Monroe County after the iPhone Bandit (iPB) was installed as County Administrator.  In fact, it was Tew Cardenas who mislead new staff in Washington D.C. and jeopardized the remaining Army Corps funding available to the Keys.

A Cardenas staffer named Emily Zammit made the opportunistic and misleading pitch which lead to the ensuing problems.  I have no idea if Ms. Zammit was a knowledgeable participant or was just mouthing her lines, but that pitch could have cost the citizens of the Keys over $50 million.  For this aggressively incompetent service, Tew Cardenas/Cardenas Partners was paid  something on the order of $250,000 over the course of four years or so.  Their contract documents can be found here and here.  If the firm hadn’t self-destructed, I’m sure the county would have kept them on indefinitely.

Remember that the county pays its lobbyists out of the General Fund.  General Fund revenues come primarily from ad valorem taxes collected county-wide.  All citizens contribute to the same extent.  Whether they own property in an incorporated area or an unincorporated area.  Whether their wastewater service is provided by a municipality or by a county-preferred special district or by an upstart special district.  In other words, Key Largo citizens paid for a county lobbyist whose mission was to damage their chances at much-needed federal funding.  Can it get any worse?  Yes, it can.  Read on.

The iPhone Bandit is oblivious to this fact (and a great many others), and has pushed relentlessly for the other entities to finance his self-serving legislative adventures.  The FKAA can always be counted on to contribute, but remember they have received over $100 million in infrastructure sales tax money.  It makes sense for them to kick in a few hundred thousand dollars to keep the gravy train rolling.  For the rest, its not such a great investment for the reasons stated above.

I met the iPhone Bandit for the first time in July 2011, shortly after I became the General Manager of the Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District (District).  I discussed the wastewater funding disparity with him and Kevin Wilson.  They weren’t the least bit concerned.  In fact shortly after that visit I received the first version of the “craptacular spreadsheet“.  It was the first indication that the county definitely was not on board with funding equity, and planned to use deceptive methods to stop it.

Perhaps a year or so later, I attended a BOCC meeting with Charlie Brooks, who was a District Commissioner at the time, and Ray Giglio, District Counsel.  The iPhone Bandit approached us about an interlocal agreement to finance Dean Cannon as the Keys’ “super-lobbyist”.  After a long awkward silence, Ray said something like, “Isn’t that illegal?”  You see, Mr. Cannon was still in office at this point.  He could not legally lobby the legislature until two years after the end of his term.  The iPhone Bandit mumbled something and slithered off – leaving us wondering what the iPhone Bandit was trying to rope us into.

Mr. Cannon did wind up representing certain Keys entities in Tallahasse.  As far as I know, he still does.  As I mentioned above, it seems he’s managed to do it legally.  My understanding is that he could not lobby the legislature for two years after leaving office, but he could lobby the executive branch.

There’s no question that as Speaker of the House, Mr. Cannon was instrumental in securing the first $50 million for the Keys.  He got the ball rolling and I am grateful for that.  What’s less is clear is the role he, or anyone on the county’s lobbying team, might have played in the state’s inexplicable refusal to allow Mayfield Grant money to be used to pay for completed projects – a purpose for which it was explicitly intended.  This seemingly irrational decision was obviously a tremendous benefit to the county and the FKAA, who are always desperate for a bail-out of their delayed and hyper-expensive projects.  Unfortunately, the state seemed all to willing to enable this irresponsible conduct at the expense of the other entities.  I’d love to know why.  I’d go so far as to say that the affected public deserves to know why.

Certainly that first $50 million got the ball rolling and hopefully all taxpayers will secure an equitable benefit in the end.  I should make one thing very clear.  As far as I can tell, Mr. Cannon played no role in the “super-lobbyist” shenanigans described below.  The way he went about establishing his lobbying firm was a bit close to the line for some, but he followed the rules as written.  And he is not the first or only former legislator to follow the same path.

That brings us back to the “super-lobbyist” language air-dropped into the interlocal agreement.  Right around Christmas 2012, I opened my email and “BAM” – there was an email from Bob Shillinger, Monroe County’s attorney.  The county had crapped a whole pile of “super-lobbyist” verbiage into the District’s nice simple draft interlocal agreement.  I objected for a few reasons:

  1. The District already had a lobbyist, who had done an outstanding job for years.  And which the iPhone Bandit tried to convince me to fire.  He definitely did not (and I’m sure still does not) want the District looking out for its own interests in Tallahassee or Washington D.C. for obvious reasons.
  2. The “super-lobbyist” that the iPhone Bandit attempted to force-feed us had only been exposed to the iPhone Bandit’s twisted version of reality.  There had been no effort to determine the particulars of the District’s situation.  The iPhone Bandit was demanding that we pay for the services of someone who knew nothing about the District and hadn’t bothered to find out.
  3. The agreement tied eligibility for funding to participation in this “super-lobbyist” deal.  It was blackmail, to be blunt about it.
  4. Mr. Cannon’s activities, although not illegal, did not sit well with many in Tallahassee.  I preferred that the District not be saddled with that baggage.

I told the iPhone Bandit that if he wanted the District to participate, he was going to have to convince the District Commissioners.  I invited him to a board meeting in February 2013, and Commissioner Andy Tobin asked one very simple question:  “Are the entities required to pay for the “super-lobbyist” in order to participate in state funding?”  The iPhone Bandit answered “no” even though the language of the agreement plainly stated otherwise.  I guess he didn’t want his blackmail attempt going public.

That verbal exchange short-circuited the whole thing, and a new interlocal was drafted removing all mention of a “super-lobbyist”.  With that baggage out of the way, the other entities quickly signed on.  Earlier that year, the governor made it clear that he would include funding for the Keys in his budget if the entities could reach an agreement as to the division of the money.  The county’s “super-lobbyist” maneuvering prevented the Keys from meeting that deadline.

Shortly after the iPhone Bandit’s visit to the District board, the county launched their inept attack on Army Corps funding.  Thankfully that attack failed.  Because of the timing of events, I often wonder if it was some form of retaliation against the District for derailing the “super-lobbyist” extortion attempt.  It definitely had an amateurish, thrown-together feel – as though it had been cobbled together at the last minute.

Then again, the county’s interference would also have damaged Marathon and Islamorada.   Why target them, too?  Sloppy.  Besides, the county’s efforts always have an amateurish, thrown-together feel.  (The ESS “white paper” is another great example.)  They just don’t seem to think things through.  Sen. Nelson and Rep. Garcia both had brand new staffers at the time.  So I suspect the attack was really timed to take advantage of their inexperience.  It would have happened whether the District agreed to the “super-lobbyist” or not.  This is just how the county rolls.

I share these experiences because I think it helps people to connect the dots and understand what the heck is really going on.  I’m sure I don’t even know the half of it.  In an ideal world it would make perfect sense for the entities of the Keys to join forces and hire a common lobbyist.  Local governments do it all the time, but those interlocal agreements look nothing like the county’s “blackmail” attempt.

Unfortunately, the county’s history of sleaziness, bad faith and poor leadership makes a common lobbyist unthinkable for the Keys.  The county is incapable of managing their own resources – chronically spending way beyond their budget.  They then try to address the shortfall by diverting funding away from the other entities with sleazy, underhanded maneuvers.  They don’t have the credibility to lead a team.  They don’t even have the discipline to keep their own projects on track.

I put together this spreadsheet and sent it to county commissioner, Danny Kolhage.  Someone suggested to me that Kolhage was concerned with ethics and fiscal responsibility and might be interested in seeing more of that on the lobbying side.  He wasn’t and isn’t.  That whole “ethics and fiscal responsibility” thing is just shallow rhetoric employed for the purposes of hoodwinking the public.  Kolhage’s mishandling of the Cudjoe Regional project and refusal to address the funding disparity make that abundantly clear.  Not to mention his murky financial disclosure forms.

This spreadsheet was assembled four years ago.  It’s way out of date.  The county has since added members to the team.  I am sure costs have escalated substantially since then.  In fact, the county recently roped the other entities into paying $36,000 for a flyer.

The situation has stabilized over the years thanks to Rep. Raschein’s leadership.  In 2014, the Keys managed to secure an additional $50 million.  This year the Florida Keys Stewardship Act was passed.  (It’s hard to say right now whether that will be a good thing or not.)  But I don’t think the situation will ever be even close to ideal.

It will always be an uphill battle because of the county’s unethical, irresponsible behavior.  That is unless drastic changes are made at the county and at the FKAA.

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