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Legislative give and take 

After 1,000 birds were found dead at Lake Apopka in 1998, scientists found high levels of such agricultural pollutants as DDT and toxaphene on the shores. Some state officials wanted farmers to be more responsible with their use of pesticides and for them to be held liable for such cleanups.

But not everyone agreed.

Rick Minton, a Florida House Democrat from Fort Pierce, amended an agricultural bill two years later to have taxpayers and not the farmers pick up the tab for similar pesticide cleanups. The amendment passed, effectively removing any liability from farmers if they claim they used their fertilizers and pesticides properly.

One of those Minton could be protecting is himself, a sixth-generation citrus farmer. In 1999, Minton reported he was a major stockholder in Triple M Investment Co. Inc., owning more than $150,000 in stock in the citrus growing and packing company; was a stockholder in the citrus and cattle production company Longino Ranch Inc.; and was a partner in Brothers 4, a citrus-growing venture. He is also a real-estate agent.

The agricultural sector contributed the most of any industry during Minton's last campaign, donating more than $41,000, almost 18 percent of his campaign funds.

"I see this as a definite conflict of interest for him as both a farmer and his job in real estate," says Sofia Metcalf, who specializes in Lake Apopka issues for the Sierra Club. "Many feel that because of this amendment, the farmers would not have to clean up the lands they have polluted before they sell them."

Minton insists he put the bill forth on behalf of his constituency. "I have a rural district, and they are very concerned about how they are going to live as farmers," he says. "These people are following the letter of the law, and they should not be sued for it. If I was worried about my own interests, I would have stayed here on the farm instead of going to the Legislature."

Public-interest groups and like-minded public officials have long pushed for campaign-finance reform. Many times the industries in which Florida legislators have financial connections are the same ones that generate their largest campaign donations.

The Center for Public Integrity found that 25 Florida legislators had outside financial interests in real estate, while contributions to state candidates from that sector totaled $2.5 million. Twenty-one legislators had similar links to the legal industry, which made $6.1 million in contributions; and 14 had ties to the insurance industry, which contributed $2.4 million.

The Center further found that one in three state legislators sits on a committee that regulates the industry of their largest donor.

In response to calls for reform, Florida joined about 20 states that in the last decade have put limits on contributions in state and local campaigns. The latest law allows a candidate to receive only $500 from a contributor per election. But it's a law easily ignored.

According to the Florida Division of Elections, five of the 138 legislators who ran received donations above the legal limit that had yet to be returned from the 1998 election cycle. They include House Speaker Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo; then-Rep. (now Sen.) Rodolfo "Rudy" Garcia Jr., R-Hialeah; Sen. Jim Horne, R-Orange Park; Sen. John McKay, R-Bradenton; and Sen. Betty Holzendorf, D-Jacksonville.

"There are candidates who inadvertently receive too much money, and they usually send in amended reports," said Clay Roberts, director of the Florida Board of Elections. "In order for it to be a violation of a campaign finance law, it has to be willful." Perhaps not surprisingly, none of those questioned said they accepted money knowing that it was over the limit.

Still, no agency routinely audits candidates' contributions to make sure that everyone is following the rules. (The Florida Elections Commission can impose fines up to $1,000 if it finds that illegal contributions were made intentionally.)

To stay within the limits, some candidates have started using computer software that notifies them when they have received too much money from one contributor. "It was a screw-up," said Feeney, about his donations over the limit from Greenberg Traurig, a Miami-based law firm. "Apparently, the computer technically caught the glitch, but no check was ever returned."

Even with limits in place, public-interest groups still challenge donations from lobbyists to state lawmakers. Take the donations of Ronald Book, one of the most powerful lobbyists in Florida. He represents more than 50 companies, cities and other organizations with legislative agendas, including BellSouth, the Florida Marlins baseball team and Philip Morris.

Since 1995, he and his wife, Patricia, have made 869 donations to Florida legislators and their state political parties, totaling more than $560,000, records show. "He is one of the top lobbyists in the state," said Ben Wilcox, executive director for Common Cause of Florida. "The impetus to these donations is obvious. He is using them to curry favor with the lawmakers he lobbies."

Counters Book: "It doesn't guarantee them to vote your way. You just hope that your phone calls get returned."

Both Democrats and Republicans benefit from Book's political largesse. And though Book was convicted on four counts of making illegal contributions six years ago, his sentence was a mere $2,000 fine.

Given the $500 limit on donations from an individual, company or PAC, candidates and contributors have found creative ways to circumvent the rules. For instance, companies and PACs began setting up different accounts with different names, a gimmick that allowed them to donate more money to candidates.

Consider the campaign contributions from the Florida Education Association to Sen. Buddy Dyer of Orlando. During a three-month period in 1998, the group gave $5,000 to the Senate Democratic leader by splitting it among its local PACs, FEA United Tiger North, FEA United Tiger South, FEA United Tiger East, and FEA United Tiger West.

But it's all considered legal, even though the four groups share the same address and legislative agenda. (Shortly after being re-elected, Dyer lobbied and sponsored a bill to appropriate $1 billion toward education. More than $500 million was earmarked for teacher salary increases and raising per-student funding.)

And the most popular loophole still allows a donor to give an unlimited amount to the candidate's party, which can pass along the money to the candidate later. Jeb Bush received $1.6 million from the Republican Party during his 1998 bid for governor -- and it was all legal, because parties can give as much as they want to their candidates.

"We've been going to the legislature and trying to get that reduced to $5,000 per party," said Wilcox. "That would still allow decent fund raising, but it would put somewhat of a damper on what is really legalized money laundering."

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