When Vicki Met Syl

Fate introduced Miami lobbyist Sylvester Lukis to a rising political star named Vicki Lopez-Wolfe. Twenty-two felony charges later, South Florida is still reeling.

Strayhorn acknowledged paying Lopez-Wolfe's way for a New Year's weekend at Marco Island. She said Strayhorn had given her various small gifts, including "jewelry, books, tapes, boots, and a pocket knife." These gifts, she believed, fell squarely within the context of a private romance and therefore should have posed no ethical problem. (Two months earlier, in November 1990, the Florida Commission on Ethics had issued an opinion stating that politicians' romantic relationships are not, in and of themselves, regulated or prohibited by state law.)"I was devastated," Lopez-Wolfe says of the newspaper coverage and its aftershocks. "I felt very strongly that I should be able to have a private life. That relationship in no way affected my mind, my intellect, my ability to serve."

In an explanation worthy of Machiavelli, Bruce Strayhorn explained why he broke up with Lopez-Wolfe a week or two after the story appeared, shortly before his relationship with Waste Management also ended: "She's a rising star of politics, and this could hurt her, and I wouldn't want that," he noted in court. "It's caused me to ask myself, for her sake, is it worth it?"

Lopez-Wolfe was a bit more pointed: "Mr. Strayhorn flew the coop, if you will, in a very quick manner."

Strayhorn and journalist Lee Melsek exited her life for the time being, but the former would re-enter it months later, giving the latter more ammunition for front-page news stories. Ten weeks thence Lopez-Wolfe met Sylvester Lukis in Washington.

Lukis says he wasn't aware of the Lopez-Wolfe/Strayhorn scandal in Fort Myers. His first encounter with Lopez-Wolfe was not coincidental, however. Hearing that a Lee County commissioner was in town, he called her at the Washington Hilton the afternoon of March 14, 1991, and invited her to dinner at Galileo. He says that in their initial contact he identified himself as a representative of Ogden Martin Systems, Inc., an engineering firm interested in doing business in southwest Florida.

Actually, Ogden Martin Systems was already doing business on the Gulf Coast. In August 1990, before Lopez-Wolfe was elected, Lee County commissioners had voted to give the $200 million incinerator construction contract to the New Jersey-based engineering firm. But four months later, public concern about the cost and environmental impact of the incinerator had grown; when Lopez-Wolfe swept into office with Doug St. Cerny, another anti-incinerator commissioner, executives at Ogden Martin Systems feared a policy reversal and loss of the contract.

The company turned to Lukis in December 1990. "I do believe they thought they were in trouble," Lukis notes, explaining that he was hired at a rate of $5000 per month plus expenses to evaluate the positions of various Lee County commissioners and generally "get the contract back on track."

Just as Lukis's first encounter with Lopez-Wolfe was premeditated, so his first trip to Fort Myers was as much about business as romance. When he came south to Lee County in April 1991, he brought with him George Butcher and Arthur Spector, the two Goldman, Sachs executives mentioned above.

Butcher and Spector were interested in Lee County. In late 1990 and early 1991, in addition to the giant garbage incinerator, local government planned a total of 300 capital improvements, including a major-league baseball stadium, several big road construction projects, and a new bridge linking the county seat of Fort Myers with Cape Coral, the county's most populous city. These projects would require Lee County to borrow up to one billion dollars, and to do that meant hiring one or more bond underwriting firms to issue and manage the debt.

For years Lee County had done the bulk of its bond business with another Wall Street firm, Smith Barney. Now with the stakes growing too high to ignore, Goldman, Sachs wanted in on future bond deals and was willing to make an effort to achieve that end. The firm hired Lukis for $7500 per month plus expenses.

Lukis says his work for Goldman, Sachs consisted mainly of introducing Wall Street representatives to various Sunshine State decision makers. "Goldman, Sachs wanted me to help them increase their activities in Florida," he recalls. "There were several bond issuances by several boards and authorities throughout the region, including the Tampa Port Authority and the Orlando Aviation Authority."

In Fort Myers, Lukis introduced Butcher and Spector to Vicki Lopez-Wolfe, who in turn helped them meet other commissioners and government officials. It would be years before either Goldman, Sachs or Ogden Martin Systems knew of their lobbyist's love affair with the young commissioner. What Lukis's clients knew was that Lopez-Wolfe seemed like a good friend to have.

"Were you looking to fall in love with a county commissioner?" Lukis was asked six years later.

"I wasn't looking to fall in love with a county commissioner or anyone else at that time," he replied. "But it happened."

In May 1991 Jeb Bush looked down from a helicopter and saw a kinder, gentler Miami passing beneath him. That is, he saw Cape Coral and Fort Myers, the principal settlements of Lee County. Cape Coral in particular was a minor miracle of public planning -- all the storm drains, electrical arteries, and suburban streets of a mini-metropolis already laid out and waiting for the next inevitable rush of sun-seeking Northern retirees.

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