Declaring themselves fighters for clean government, Florida senators voted unanimously to stop local elected officials from moonlighting as paid lobbyists who try to influence other government officials on behalf of their clients.
But they don't want to apply the same standard to themselves.
The proposed law would allow state senators and state representatives to continue working as lobbyists representing paying clients seeking favors from county commissions and city, town and village governments — a practice that's good for two South Florida legislators.
•State Sen. Joe Abruzzo of Palm Beach County is a paid lobbyist on behalf of the Florida Panthers hockey team, which is seeking an $80 million bailout from the Broward County Commission. Among the people he's paid to influence is County Commissioner Marty Kiar — a wavering vote on the Panthers issue who was Abruzzo's roommate when both were members of the Florida House of Representatives.
Abruzzo and Kiar remain buddies; the commissioner posted a photo on Facebook of the two of them attending an NBA Finals game last year, with both wearing matching white Miami Heat shirts.
When he's not legislating, Abruzzo is the sole lobbyist working for AIM, which stands for Abruzzo Issues Management. He said he no longer works for the prominent Boca Raton law-lobbying firm Weiss, Handler & Cornwell, though the website still lists him as a "government relations and public policy consultant." Abruzzo's most recent state financial disclosure, filed in July, shows he was paid $87,500 by Weiss Handler in 2012.
•State Rep. Joe Gibbons of southeast Broward. He's lobbied city officials in Broward on behalf of paying clients. When he's not working as a state representative, he's a "public policy advisor" for Akerman, the prominent Florida law-lobbying firm. Gibbons's most recent state financial disclosure form, filed in June, shows Akerman paid him $60,075 in 2012.
Gibbons, a candidate for the Democratic nomination for a Broward County Commission seat, said he's still employed by Ackerman but has pulled back from lobbying local governments in Broward. "I've been advised since I'm running for the County Commission, start acting like you're on the County Commission."
Ethics experts and local government officials said state legislators should not be permitted to lobby local governments on behalf of private clients. "It can create blurred lines, cause perception problems and possible ethical challenges," Delray Beach Mayor Cary Glickstein said in an email.
The problem the Senate voted to fix isn't nearly as big as the situation they're allowing to continue unchecked, said Katy Sorenson, founder and CEO of the Good Government Initiative at the University of Miami who enjoyed a reputation as a champion for ethics during the 16 years she served on the Miami-Dade County Commission.
Because legislators are in a position to approve or deny money and laws sought by counties and cities, their lobbying carries a much bigger threat than local officials lobbying in Tallahassee, Sorenson said, because the local officials don't have power to help or hurt the legislators they lobby.
"I remember a very uncomfortable situation when a sitting senator came to lobby on behalf of a private client when I was a county commissioner," she said. "And at the time the county had some interests in a committee he was heading up on this issue. And in the back of my mind I was thinking if I vote against this guy and his private client is it going to be held against us."
Abruzzo, who said he doesn't lobby any municipal governments within the borders of his district, rejected the notion that state legislators' power over local governments makes it difficult for local officials to resist their lobbying efforts on behalf of private clients.
"I have a self-moral standard, and I completely put up a wall and separate the two functions," Abruzzo said, explaining that it would be "highly immoral" for a legislator to take an official action that could benefit one of his private clients.
Gibbons said he doesn't "make judgments based on what's good for me or a client but what's good for the people I represent."
However, he said, he likes the idea of banning city and county officials from lobbying senators and representatives during the legislative session. He said it can be tough for him, as a legislator, to figure out why a mayor or commissioner wants to see him. "Are you coming to see me for your private client or are you coming to see me for your city," he said. "They would come to see me for both at the same time. That's incompatible."
Gary Resnick, the mayor of Wilton Manors and a lawyer-lobbyist with the GrayRobinson law firm, has the opposite view. He lobbies other local governments but said he hasn't done state-level lobbying for years and wouldn't be affected by the prohibition on local officials lobbying state officials.
He said there's no need to prevent local government officials from lobbying in Tallahassee because "city officials have no sway over legislators." He objected to a double standard.
"If [a ban] is such a good idea, why wouldn't the Legislature do it for itself?"
Update: Abruzzo made a couple of points on Sunday via email.
He noted correctly that he did not vote for the legislation in the Senate. He was absent during that vote, because he was in the hospital.
He said he wants to see the legislation amended to remove the lobbying prohibition on school board members and county commissioners, whose jobs are technically part time. He added, though, that based on what he can tell, the House has no plans to act on the provision before the end of the legislative session, so the proposal would be dead.
Video of state Rep. Joe Gibbons discussing his lobbying activities at SunSentinel.com/BrowardPolitics.