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Birthday party for Scott aide hosted at home of lobbyist and wife

SellerstexasbirthdayAs Gov. Rick Scott's chief of staff, Adam Hollingsworth seeks to avoid excessive socializing with lobbyists. It's not just a legal or ethical standard, he says, but appearances matter, too.

"We have made it a stated objective to avoid the appearance of impropriety by socializing excessively with the Tallahassee apparatchik," Hollingsworth said Tuesday.

But Scott's top aide was frustrated by questions from the Times/Herald about a weekend party he attended at a lobbyist's home. The "Texas-sized backyard BBQ" was a pot luck event to celebrate the birthday of Melissa Sellers, Scott's communications director, who turned 31 Tuesday.

Invitations showed Sellers posing with former President George W. Bush (she interned at the Bush White House), and told guests "no gifts, ya'll," a nod to the prohibition against staffers receiving anything of value from lobbyists.

It was held at the home of Daniel and Monica Russell. She's the communications director at the Department of Economic Opportunity, and he's a lawyer with the Jones Walker firm and a registered lobbyist for, among others, the Northrop Grumman Corp., a defense contractor that is negotiating economic incentives from DEO in return for creating more than 1,000 jobs.

Hollingsworth said he attended the party assuming it was the home of Meghan Speakes, the spokeswoman at the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, and a Sellers friend.

“A fair look at this invitation would have you presume that when you RSVP to Meghan Speakes that’s the home to which you will be arriving,” Hollingsworth said.

Sellers said it’s Monica Russell whom she knows better.  

“She’s my friend and her husband is Dan,” Sellers said. “I know him as Monica’s husband.”

Sellers said she did not know who his clients are.

Daniel happens to lobby for Northrop Grumman Corp., the Falls Church, Virginia-based military contractor that has been negotiating a tax incentive deal with local governments and the state of Florida that could reach nearly $19 million over the next five to 10 years. It would be the largest jobs-creating tax incentives deal since Scott became governor. The office that is handling those negotiations is the Department of Economic Opportunity, where Monica Russell is the spokeswoman.

Hollingsworth said he didn’t know about Daniel Russell’s client until told about it by the Times/Herald.

Was Hollingsworth concerned about appearances with DEO’s spokeswoman married to the lobbyist of a company negotiating with the agency?

“Not as long as there is a firewall that protects the integrity of the operation,” he said. “As long as the marital relationship doesn’t influence the business decisions at DEO, and the public is protected, then I’m completely comfortable with the marital relationship and the employment relationship.”

Asked to describe the firewall, Hollingsworth said “I can’t. I can try to find out for you.”

Daniel Russell also works at the Jones Walker Law Firm, where he and Marc Dunbar lobby for the gaming industry. According to one profile, Russell focuses on gaming and pari-mutuel law,  civil and administrative litigation, labor and employment law, and government law. He is the former general counsel of Gulfstream Park, a thoroughbred horse track and casino in Hallandale Beach.

Hollingsworth said he didn’t know Russell.

“I met Daniel Russell that night,” Hollingsworth said. “I didn’t ask him what he did and he didn’t tell me what he did.”

According to Chapter 112, government employees are prohibited from soliciting or accepting anything of value, such as a gift, loan, reward, favor or service that is based on an understanding that their “official action or judgment would be influenced by such gift.”

Scott’s own code of ethics states that his employees “safeguard their ability to make objective, fair and impartial decisions, and therefore may not accept benefits of any sort under circumstances in which it could be inferred by a reasonable observer that the benefit was intended to influence a pending or future decision of theirs.”

Scott’s office has tremendous sway in negotiating a  final deal between Northrop Grumman and the state of Florida. And the state regulators who work for him have helped expand gambling in Florida since he took over.

Sellers, who once led media efforts for Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, became Scott’s communications director last year. She said she had little to do with organizing the party.

Sellers and Hollingsworth said all the guests, which included Scott’s general counsel, Peter Antonacci, brought their own food and drink. Per the invite, no one brought gifts.

Given his high standards for not socializing with lobbyists, would he attend the party now knowing who Daniel Russell is?

“That’s an unfair question,” Hollingsworth said. “If I say ‘yes,’ it means that perhaps I’m a dunce. And if I say ‘no’, it suggests that something inappropriate occurred. So what I would say is this. I would go to the home of a colleague to celebrate the birthday of a colleague as long as it met appropriate legal, ethical and propriety standards. This party did.”

But he said the questions led him to conclude he learned one lesson.

“This issue is a good reminder that despite our best efforts to maintain the highest degree of integrity, even the most innocent acts can be sometimes unfairly called into question,” he said. “So it’s a good reminder why my family and I maintain a high degree of social reclusivity.”

Comments

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NAFOV

what a stupid blog post. The Times has become so petty.

Eric Molares

The only real question here is how was the brisket?

Not Rick Scott

This is a LAME story. More like Michael Van Suckler.

Jim

Its an important story. Hollingsworth can't say one thing and do another. These are standards that he and the governor have come up with. And does anyone believe the "I thought the house belonged to someone else" defense?! Give me a BREAK!

whasup

The problem is the basic policy of the Scott administration trying to present some facade of preventing staff from socializing with lobbyists.

1) That is mere appearance, since it doesn't prevent staff from having those private phone calls nor those home-based parties where social interaction and lubrication happens.

2) It is absurd to have such a policy, but then staff key administration and agency positions with spouses of lobbyists ... period.

Every time an administration tries to make a good show of insulation from the interest group representatives that infest Tallahassee, it fundamentally commits a fraud upon the public. Better to allow the relationships and social encounters, recognize and report them, and monitor them for undue influence.

William A.

If anyone believes Hollingsworth is being truthful boy do I have bridge to sell you. Same for Sellers who had a reputation for lying to the press when she was with Jindal. Just Google Melissa Sellers Public Enemy Number One and check it out.

So someone bought her a cake, that is a gift.
Held at a lobbyist's home, that is a gift.

It was a BBQ and it would be interesting to see all the guests arrive with their very own BBQ since Hollingsworthless said it was pot luck.

Her best friend was having the party yet she had no idea what her best friend's husband did for a living.

Hollingsworthless states that he thought it was the other woman's house. Seriously? How did you find the house in the first place?

Bottom line these people know everyone, it's their job and the media know they have caught them in an outright lie.

Scott would be well served to remove them now before the campaign gets going.

Subterfuge

Together with Marc Dunbar, Dan Russell is an officer in at least two shell corporations at the core of Florida's ongoing fake horse racing scandal that's causing the "mysterious" subterfuge expansion of casino gambling. Now we know why no one has done a thing about it!

Art Rocker

If you ate it is a violation and the alcoholic drink is a violation. They never inhale just swallow. They violated the rules. Are they resigning are is the policies only for the dark one Jennifer carroll. Lol

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