Former U.S. Congresswoman Carrie Meek, the first African American from Florida elected to Congress since Reconstruction, retired from political office four years ago, saying she no longer had the physical stamina to keep up with the doings on Capitol Hill. Last year she jokingly told reporters she was enjoying her newfound free time watching The View, Dr. Phil, and Oprah on the tube.
But daytime television is not the only pastime in the 80-year-old political icon's life. She has parlayed her retirement into a second career as a lobbyist. Last year she worked as a shill for both the rock-mining industry and a Miami-based homebuilder who is sponsoring a controversial plan to build on nearly 1000 acres recently annexed by Florida City.
Just recently, Miami-Dade County Commissioner Sally Heyman secured for Meek and another ex-politician, once-powerful Democratic state Rep. Michael Abrams, a sweetheart contract to lobby on behalf of Miami-Dade County. The choice, which was approved unanimously by the county commission, came four months after an impartial committee of county executives had already chosen three top-flight law firms to represent the county.
During a recent telephone interview, the usually loquacious and candid Meek was reluctant to discuss her new business endeavors. "I really don't feel comfortable giving out information without consulting with my clients," she said in her trademark soft and raspy Tallahassee twang. "I don't think it would be appropriate."
Meek, a Democrat, relinquished her political throne in 2002 to her son Kendrick, who today is running for re-election to keep the congressional seat his mother won in 1992. A shrewd politician who served on the U.S. House of Representatives' Appropriations Committee, Carrie Meek timed her retirement perfectly giving Kendrick's potential opponents only two months before the Democratic primary to mount a campaign. Write-in Socialist candidate Michael Italie was the son's only opposition. Before her congressional tenure, Meek spent ten years as the first black woman elected to the state Senate.
In 2001 she founded the Carrie Meek Foundation, a nonprofit organization that accepts corporate donations and taxpayer funding to aid and support cultural and economic development programs in Miami's inner cities. In April 2003 the foundation received $100,000 from Miami-Dade. And earlier this year the City of Miami gave the nonprofit $100,000.
In 2004 Meek incorporated the Carrie Meek Group, a lobbying and consulting firm. A year later, according to Miami-Dade lobbyist registration records, Meek represented residential developer Lennar Homes Inc.; the Miami-Dade Limestone Products Association, a coalition of rock-mining companies; and Concourse Concessions Inc., a company trying to do business at Miami International Airport.
A guarded Meek allowed that she has done "community outreach" for Lennar, as well as attended public hearings on behalf of the homebuilder. When asked specifics about her community outreach, Meek referred New Times to Lennar. Company spokesman Mark Sustana declined comment.
Meek could not recall her employment with the limestone association but remembered working alongside rock mining's longtime hired gun, Miami attorney and former state legislator Miguel de Grandy.
Massie Ritsch, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington D.C.-based watchdog group, says it is common for congressional leaders to leave office and take up new careers as lobbyists. "They are sought after because of their relationships in Congress," Ritsch notes. "Former insiders have an advantage."
Late last year Meek was among more than twenty bidders angling for the $1.2-million-per-year contract to represent the county in Washington. She and Abrams, who served in the legislature from 1980 to 1994, came in fourth and fifth, respectively, during the selection process.
But the selection committee opted to recommend the top bidders, consisting of Greenberg Traurig, Alcalde & Fay, and Tew Cardenas. Under the plan the committee recommended to commissioners, each lobbying firm will annually receive $200,000 and an additional $100,000 in contingency funds. Another $225,000 was set aside for a staff office in D.C.
On January 24, the day the lobbying contract was forwarded to the county commission for a vote, Heyman laid the groundwork for Meek and Abrams to get a piece of the action. As chairman of the intergovernmental, recreational, and cultural committee, the North Dade Democrat directed staff to draw up separate contracts at $75,000 each for Meek and Abrams, using the funds set aside for the office. Heyman made the request right before the beginning of the committee meeting, says one county staffer in attendance who asked to remain anonymous.
"I almost fell out of my chair," the employee says. "It was a clear example of a commissioner steering a contract. If that's the case, why bother with a selection committee?"
When the lobbying contract was later discussed by the full committee at the same meeting, Heyman was vague. She said only that she had amended the deal to "allow staff to come back with a proposal for work orders to use two specific individuals for specific projects."
At the March 15 committee meeting, Heyman revealed she wanted to add Meek and Abrams because of their "strengths and relationships" in Congress. Heyman said Meek and Abrams would lobby only if they were needed.
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Commissioner Dennis Moss was the only committee member to question the deal. "My concern is that we don't start grabbing folks out of the air," he said. "We still find ourselves under a lot of scrutiny. We don't want to open additional cans of worms."
Heyman assured Moss that the arrangement was above board and had been vetted by the county attorney's office. "That's why I brought it up for discussion," she said. A month later the committee forwarded the Meek/Abrams contract to the full county commission, which approved it unanimously this past May 9.
During a recent interview, Heyman defended her actions, which are being reviewed by the Miami-Dade inspector general. "I believe they can help maximize our return," she said. "Mike is good on Medicare and Medicaid. Meek sat on Appropriations. If we don't use them by October 1, the money rolls back to the general fund."
Meanwhile, Meek affirmed her abilities to give the county its money's worth. "I am experienced, I am quite prepared to give and share information, and I know people," she said. "That is what a good lobbyist is all about."