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Steve MacNamara's inner circle goes lobbyist fishing

Picture 11As the going got tough for Gov. Rick Scott's chief of staff Steve MacNamara, his inner circle got to fishing in the Florida Keys with one of the Capitol’s top lobbyists, David Browning, who caught this nice red grouper.

It was enough to feed the crew: MacNamara’s two top deputies, Marc Slager and Chris Finkbeiner, and an insider who has also fed at the government trough, Abe Uccello, the recipient of a questionable $360,000 no-bid contract awarded by MacNamara when he was in the Senate.

Uccello now heads Scott’s task force overseeing government waste. Slager and Finkbeiner were brought to the governor’s office by MacNamara, who made sure to pay them $135,000 each -- 35 percent more than two female deputy staff chiefs. Slager was involved in a curious broadband contract kerfuffle. And Finkbeiner was a liaison to Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office during a controversial Cuba bill signing that politically blew up on Scott.

Even Spanish-language TV has started to question MacNamara's role in Scott's administration. Scott has complained that the news media is being "mean" as we scrutinize his $189,000-a-year staff chief.

It’s common for Capitol insiders to mix and mingle and, as long the participants paid their own way (which we’re sure they did) it’s completely legal. None could be reached, including two other fishermen, outgoing House staffer Kirk Pepper and the governor’s external affairs director Mike Dew.

As the insiders enjoyed the great outdoors, Scott and the Florida Cabinet were preparing to head down today for a meeting. It’s unclear if Scott’s staffers stayed or if they billed taxpayers for part of the trip in advance of their boss coming down.

The trip caught the eye of other Capitol insiders when Browning posted his boating shot on Facebook. Remember when Scott said the "deal-makers are crying in their cocktails" when he won the 2010 Republican primary (besting an opponent funded partly by insiders like Browning)? Well, now they're gripping and grinning big red groupers with his staff.

Browning had another reason to smile after the end of session last month: His firm, Southern Strategy Group, had a great year for its dozens of clients while MacNamara headed Scott’s operations.Some budget wins: $10 million for Embry-Riddle flight school in Daytona, $50 million Florida Keys Aquaduct Authority, a $20 million contract with Infinity Software Development, $4.2 million for the Wakulla Springs Institute and $1 million for Major League Soccer

Meantime, MacNamara's leadership in the governor's office has come under heavier scrutiny, as the above links show.

MacNamara’s friendly relations with SSG, which Browning joined only last year, goes back about a decade, when one of its lobbyists changed his story and thereby scuttled an ethics investigation into MacNamara. At the time, MacNamara was facing a complaint for an apparent conflict of interest: Serving as Florida House staff chief and as cement-company lobbyist.

The former House Speaker MacNamara served under, John Thrasher, went to work for SSG until 2009, when he won a state Senate seat. Thrasher’s a go-to quote for reporters writing about MacNamara.

"He's Machiavellian in his politics," Thrasher said of MacNamara in a September profile. "He understands the give and take and knows how to get things done."

Just ask Abe Uccello.