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Lawmakers slow to audit lobbyists

Audits of the fees that lobbyists collect to influence the legislative process have been allowed by law since 2005.

But even with Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, showing their support for the audits to finally be done, don’t expect them to begin any time soon, more than eight years after they were approved by lawmakers.

During a Monday meeting of the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee, co-chair Sen. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Wellington, outlined all the steps that need to be done so that the audits can begin, which would only look at three percent of those who lobby the executive and legislative branches.

Abruzzo said the committee, an 11-member board of senators and representatives, would need to establish a system to audit the firms, establish procedures, come up with a list of 10 auditors who qualify for the work, and, oh yeah, find a source of funding.

Confronted with the task ahead, Rep. Dan Raulerson, R-Plant City, asked if the auditing firms that will do the work have been identified, Abruzzo had a simple reply.

“Nothing has been done,” Abruzzo said.

The audits are already allowed by law. They were originally part of landmark legislation that was passed during a 2005 special session after lobbyists had helped defeat if just a few months earlier.

Pushed by Sen. Tom Lee of Brandon, who was then serving as Senate President, and embraced by then-Gov. Jeb Bush, the intent of the audits and reporting requirements was to add more transparency in how much lobbyists make to represent clients and influence legislation.

But the new rules, which were passed along with a gift ban, had some wriggle room. Lobbyists were required to report the fees they collected only in $10,000 increments. So if Lobbyist A was paid $1,000 by Company A, and Lobbyist B was paid $9,000 by Company B, it would appear in the same $1 to $9,999 range that lobbyists are required to report.

That impreciseness bothers both public records advocates and lobbyists, but in different ways. For those wanting more open records, the wide range hardly makes it easier for the public in figuring out how much lobbyists actually make and who pays them. For lobbyists like Southern Strategy Group and Ballard Partners battling for bragging rights, the rough reporting ranges allowed some lobbyists to inflate how much they were actually making, exaggerating their influence. It also isn’t clear if some lobbyists were purposefully redundant in calculating their fees by counting their fees twice, once through the legislative branch, one through the executive branch.

Yet even though the law allows audits to answer such questions, no audits were ever done of the lobbyists. Gaetz and Weatherford have said they support auditing the fee reports filed by lobbyists, prompting a letter last week from the Florida Association of Professional Lobbyists, requested that the group be allowed to "provide input and offer our assistance."

“While Florida lobbyists are regulated by several sections of Florida law - specifically s.112.3215(5), F.S. and 11.045(2), F.S. - our members have gone above and beyond what is required by Florida law and created and pledged to abide by a self-imposed code of conduct that is signed by and adhered to by each member of our organization,” said the letter from the association’s board of directors.

The board includes The association's board includes Chairman Hubert "Bo" Bohannon;  Vice Chairman David Mica, Secretary-Treasurer Michael Hightower; executive committee representatives Jose Gonzalez and Lori Killinger; Andrea Becker; Michael W. Carlson; Eric Eikenberg; Candice Ericks; Paula Fillmore-Mateo; Susan Goldstein; Jennifer J. Green; Frederick Leonhardt; John Sebree; and John Wayne Smith.

They need not worry that lawmakers will act rashly.

Monday's meeting addressed the audits in under five minutes. No one spoke and no action was taken.