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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.”