The Politician's Best Friend: A Lobbyist Whose Clients Have Money
Ask Ron Book what makes an effective lobbyist and he'll talk about "the sanctity of the information that you convey to people" and how "a good lobbyist is someone who thinks quickly on his feet, someone who is creative, someone who brings both sides of the issue to the table." He'll explain that if he tells a person that he'll get a particular piece of information to them by 1:00 p.m., he makes sure it is on their desk no later than 12:45. He'll talk about being honest and forthright and prepared.
But he will not mention money. Without money, however, Book's formula for success is woefully incomplete. The reason: Campaign contributions buy access. As State Rep. John Cosgrove explains, during each legislative session in Tallahassee, approximately 1400 bills will be introduced in the House of Representatives; another 1100 or so will be brought forward in the Senate. The state budget (more than $30 billion these days) must be debated and fought over. All together, Cosgrove says, some 4500 individual votes will be taken. All of this in 60 days.
No wonder 8000 people are currently registered as lobbyists in Tallahassee.
"I'm supposed to be a part-time legislator and sort through all of that?" Cosgrove laughs. "What it comes down to is this: How does a lobbyist get the attention for his clients from legislators who have that much on their minds?" The simple answer: campaign contributions.
As a result, lobbyists are as much fundraisers for legislators as they are advocates for their clients. And in many ways, the lobbyist and the politician deserve one another -- each clawing at the other, pushing their agendas of either access or cash. "I think campaign contributions are without question an unfortunate and necessary evil of the process," says Book. "If you think for one minute that I enjoy writing campaign checks or raising campaign money, you are mistaken. I don't enjoy that part of it. I don't like that part of it. And I understand why people have questions about it."
Those questions focus particularly on the way Book has raised money. It is not uncommon for lobbyists to collect contributions from a variety of sources and then present all the checks to a particular candidate at one time. A stack of checks totaling $10,000 is always more impressive than a single check for $500. The process is called "bundling." But in Book's case, bundling turned to bungling.
According to the Dade State Attorney's Office, over the past three years Book illegally raised money for a number of powerful politicians, including Gov. Lawton Chiles, former state Education Secretary Doug Jamerson, and U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey (when Coffey ran for State Senate in 1992). He also gave contributions to Broward Sheriff Ron Cochran, State Rep. Beryl Burke, State Rep. Carlos Valdes, State Rep. Ron Saunders, State Rep. Art Simon, former Dade County commissioners Larry Hawkins, Charles Dusseau, and Joe Gersten, and current Dade County Commissioner Jim Burke.
Computer files from Book's office, obtained by investigators, show that in addition to the illegal contributions he funneled through his secretaries, he raised tens of thousands of dollars legally, bundling together the contributions of friends and clients, most notably Blockbuster and the for-profit hospice giant Vitas. During the 1994 elections, Book raised more than $160,000 for nearly 150 campaigns. "Ronnie is a very forceful guy," remarks fellow lobbyist Rick Sisser. "He pulls no punches. If he has raised you a lot of money, he will remind you of it."
"I don't believe that a campaign check gets me a vote," Book counters. "I absolutely do not believe that, won't believe that, and I have never conditioned a campaign contribution on it. Do I think my call gets returned a little more quickly? Yes. Do I think my mail gets answered with a little bit more attention? Yeah, it probably does. Do I think my client's interest might get a little bit more attention? Anybody who thinks otherwise would be naive. But I don't think it gets me more than that."
At the very least, the access Book enjoys has helped make him a wealthy man. When his wife filed for divorce in 1993, she estimated his annual income at $850,000. He countered that it was actually only half that. The real figure, however, was never established as the couple reconciled a year ago. But no matter whose version was accurate, the money clearly is good.
During the course of his investigation, Assistant State Attorney Dennis Bedard subpoenaed more than two dozen of Book's clients and demanded they turn over all their financial records and contracts relating to Book. It proved to be an illuminating insight into just how much value companies place on retaining an effective lobbyist. The figures were staggering. Ralph Sanchez and his Miami Motorsports company, for example, paid Book more than $250,000 since 1991. Vitas, the hospice company, paid Book nearly $400,000 over the same period. Wayne Huizenga and his various interests handed Book close to $500,000 in the past four years.
The City of North Miami pays Book $50,000 per year plus $10,000 in yearly expenses, while North Miami Beach chips in another $35,000 for Book's services and $7500 for expenses. Quality Oncology of Plantation paid Book $42,000 last year. The Miami Mental Health Center keeps Book on a retainer for $30,000 per year.
And what did Book get for them in return?
In the case of Vitas, Book had earned his fees years ago when, with the help of then-state representative Mike Abrams, Book tacked onto an obscure bill regarding rural health care a last-minute provision that made Vitas the only for-profit hospice in the State of Florida. Most importantly, the bill forever prohibits competitors from setting up shop in the state. The measure passed without any notice or fanfare, and without most legislators knowing what they were voting for, and it guaranteed Vitas's founder, Hugh Westbrook, a very profitable future. "I did that," Book says proudly. "That was me."
On behalf of Miami Motorsports, one of Book's more recent coups was securing one million dollars in hurricane relief funds for the City of Homestead (another of Book's clients) so the city could finish building Sanchez's racetrack. Book secured the money for Homestead at a time when he was also supposedly representing Dade County. The diversion of those funds to Homestead angered county officials who wanted the money for restoration of the county's parks system.
As for Huizenga, Book won approval for the now-moribund Wayne's World entertainment project, and last year led several unsuccessful backdoor attempts to have Joe Robbie Stadium excluded from the tax rolls of the proposed City of Destiny.
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