TALLAHASSEE -- Senate President Don Gaetz’s right-hand man has been running his own political consulting firm, allowing him indirectly to rake in more than $400,000 from the some of the same special interests that have a stake in influencing legislation.
For three years ending in 2012, Chris Clark, 41, took a leave of absence from his state job after the legislative session ended in May and went to work as Gaetz’s campaign manager. Clark formed the company in 2009.
The lucrative arrangement Clark has carved out for himself underscores the web of financial ties special interests have with the Florida Legislature as staff often cycle in and out of government and the private sector, developing relationships with the very lobbyists who have a financial stake in influencing them.
“It’s a practice that Democrats and Republicans have used without any serious problem that I’m aware of,’’ said Gaetz, R-Niceville, in defending Clark, who saw no conflict with the arrangement.
Clark’s dual role as campaign consultant and legislative staff member is allowed by law as long as he doesn’t work on the campaign while on the state job.
Still, Clark’s consulting deals stand out for two reasons: the sheer size of the raw dollar amounts and the fact that Gaetz made a show of standing against special interest money by leading a charge to abolish some of the very political committees that helped fund his chief of staff.
Last spring, Gaetz hailed the ethics package passed by the Senate as “a bright line warning to those who would use public office for private gain.”
The money, according to state campaign finance records and Senate documents, was paid to Clark and his company, CM Consensus, through three sources: Gaetz’s state Senate campaign, a political committee Gaetz controls, and the Republican Party of Florida.
Clark described the role he played for Gaetz as “complete campaign work” that covered developing a fundraising strategy, scheduling, billing, event planning and mail and television advertising. Gaetz faced token opposition or no challengers in his last two campaigns.
RPOF spokeswoman Susan Hepworth said Clark worked for Gaetz at the party, serving as a general consultant to various Senate campaigns. His job included developing a voter contact plan, coordinating phone, mail, advertising, TV and radio plans, event planning and working on candidate recruitment, she said.
As chief of staff and Gaetz’s confidant, Clark is the most powerful staff member in the Senate. He can influence the flow of legislation, where bills get heard in committee and which lobbyists’ amendments get a hearing. Text records show that during the final days of the legislative session that ended in May, lobbyists were in frequent contact with the Senate chief of staff. Clark, who got his start in politics as a travel aide to former Gov. Jeb Bush, is affectionately known as “Clarkie” to his friends in the lobbying corps.
Gaetz not only allowed Clark to circulate back and forth between his state job and campaign work, he also gave him hefty pay raises at a time when the Florida Legislature denied state workers pay increases. Gaetz gave Clark 10 pay increases, including three raises in each of his first two years on the job.
When Gaetz named Clark his chief of staff in 2012, he boosted Clark’s state salary from $76,068 to $150,000, making him the highest paid staff member of the Florida Legislature. He said the increase was justified because Clark “took a significant pay cut when he came to work for me six years ago.”