The Florida Legislature gave away more than $100 million this past year -- public giveaways with little oversight and virtually no accountability for how the money was spent.
Swayed by politics and top-dollar lobbyists, the Legislature doled out millions to groups that have wasted state money, spent it illegally or channeled it to political cronies. In some instances, a Miami Herald investigation of state records over the past five years showed, the giveaways indirectly benefited individual legislators.
The money was appropriated through direct grants to nonprofit groups and to local governments, even though the state agencies nominally in charge of the money rarely sought the funding.
Many grants came with no strings attached. As a result, usually rigid state rules for spending money -- even lottery dollars -- didn't come into play.
Says Assistant Comptroller Ash Williams, "It's no accident. The reason these are done by direct legislation is to avoid accountability."
Contracts are not put out to bid. Salaries are not regulated. State policy is not followed.
Peter Dunbar, the governor's general counsel, is equally blunt. "Nobody meant for the system to become corrupted, but it has."
There is no system to weed out bad projects or recognize good ones, which makes it impossible to determine how much of the approximately $100 million appropriated in direct grants each year is well spent.
The records show:
* The Florida Lottery, which is earmarked for education, paid for then-Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Gwen Margolis of North Miami, Sen. John Grant of Tampa, Rep. Bo Johnson of Milton, Rep. Jack Tobin of Margate and Patti Woodworth, the governor's budget director, to fly to Israel as part of an agricultural research project in March.
Lottery money also paid for Reps. Art Simon of Kendall, Jeff Huenink of Clearwater and Ron Saunders of Key West to fly to Brazil last November. Most of the legislators who went on the trips say they did not know lottery money financed them. It was all part of the $500,000 appropriated in 1989 for "international education linkages."
* The Legislature granted $400,000 to the American International Exhibition for Travel, a Miami Beach for-profit company that vowed to promote tourism in 1987. The firm paid a Tallahassee lobbyist $52,000. Four months after getting the state check, the company owner disappeared. His firm owed $1 million, including back taxes, to the state of Florida.
* The Legislature appropriated $1 million in 1989 to fund amateur athletic facilities. The money actually went to the Ladies Professional Golf Association. In 1990, the Legislature appropriated $2 million for "the 11th Street Access Exchange Road." The street will lead into the LPGA's new headquarters in Daytona Beach, home of House Speaker T.K. Wetherell, who was then appropriations chairman.
* Then-House Speaker Tom Gustafson, D-Fort Lauderdale, sponsored a $300,000 appropriation in 1989 for the American Horticultural Marketing Council. His father-in-law, Jerry Soowal, owns a Broward nursery and is a marketing council director. As part of the state grant, Soowal flew to Poland to attend a conference. Gustafson said the group had gotten state funding years before he met his wife. He said all he did was make sure the funding continued.
* Rep. Alberto Gutman, R-Miami, helped the Adults Mankind Organization, a group that was supposed to help Nicaraguans get jobs, obtain a $100,000 grant in 1989. The executive director is a felon convicted of embezzlement. The president's husband is Gutman's friend. Gutman did not return phone calls seeking comment.