When Dade County's Beacon Council wanted to study the South Florida economy, it hired two lobbyists to persuade the state to pay for it.
When the Legislature gave the group a $150,000 grant, the Beacon Council rewarded the lobbyists with $15,000 of the state money.
That's an improper use of taxpayer's dollars, according to the Comptroller's Office.
About one-third of the Dade County nonprofit groups that received state money in 1989 did the same thing, according to a Miami Herald sampling of contracts between nonprofit groups that got state money and the lobbyists who helped them get it.
The sampling showed about $100,000 in state money paid to lobbyists, but the dollar total could be much higher. Only a small portion of the hundreds of projects awarded in 1989 were surveyed.
Under the system in which the Florida Legislature gives away grants, the state has no way of discovering the payments to the lobbyists. That's because the grants are typically not audited by the state. When they are, the scrutiny comes after the money has been spent.
Lobbyists play a key role in deciding who gets state money. Organizations hire them to write grant proposals, convince legislators the items should be funded, then usher the projects through the complicated budget process. In some cases, lobbyists determine how much money a project needs -- then get a percentage of the appropriation as a fee.
A legislative committee tried -- but failed -- during the 1990 session to ban contingency fees to lobbyists. Between 1988 and 1990, 5,833 lobbyists registered in Tallahassee.
"Lobbyists are a part of doing business, unfortunately, " said Tom Ferguson, president of the Beacon Council. "I wish there was a better way."
Records show that while most nonprofit groups use private dollars to pay lobbyists who get them public dollars, some pay the lobbyists directly out of the state grants.
In 1989, for instance:
* The South Florida Economic Research Foundation, the Beacon Council group that got the grant, paid lobbyists Robert Levy and Fausto Gomez $15,000 from the grant. The foundation also paid grant writer John Adams $10,800.
Levy and Gomez never registered in Tallahassee, as required by state law. Both said they thought they had, but said it was an oversight if they hadn't. They estimated they spent three weeks at the end of the session on the item.
* The Hialeah Latin Chamber of Commerce paid Gomez $10,000 from a $100,000 grant for a "productivity improvement center." Most of the money went for travel and salaries. The group produced a directory of apparel businesses in Hialeah and sponsored a trip to Costa Rica.
* The Association for the Useful Aged, a Little Havana program for the elderly, paid Gomez $3,000 from a $50,000 state grant. The group said Gomez helped them draw up the proposal and the contracts, but did not lobby the Legislature per se. * The National Association for Crime Prevention, a Little Havana crime watch group, paid Rick Sisser $16,000 from a $160,000 state grant. The group used most of its money on salaries and repair and upkeep of its cars.
* The Delphi Foundation, which runs a Dade County dropout prevention program, paid Sisser $24,100 "right from" a $370,000 grant, its president said.
* The Municipios Trust Foundation, a project to build a community center for Cuban Municipal Officials in Exile, paid its lobbyist, Roberto Pelleya, approximately $15,000 from a $165,000 state grant in 1989.