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Lobbysts hit high note for Miami opera

The Greater Miami Opera never had much luck getting money from the state of Florida.

Then it hired a lobbyist. Actually, it signed up three.

The next year, the Florida Legislature awarded the opera nearly $1 million. "It was almost embarrassing, " said William J. Conner, the opera's development director.

The opera, the oldest performing arts institution in the state, allowed The Miami Herald to review its internal files. The files offer a rare public glimpse into the usually private world of lobbying for public dollars.

It is a process that doesn't end when the money is appropriated.

Once the opera got its money, the lobbyists solicited opera board members to raise campaign contributions and provide show tickets for the politicians who voted for the funding. The lobbyists urged the board to host cocktail parties for legislators, send them Christmas cards and write letters pushing the opera causes.

The lobbying comes with a price.

"What really rubs people is the numbers, " Conner admits, but he notes that it would cost the opera more to hire a full- time fund-raiser than to hire lobbyists.

The opera has spent nearly $200,000 on lobbyists in the past three years. Ron Book and Phil Hamersmith, who worked as a team, earned about $158,000. Bill Hebrock earned approximately $40,000.

Considering how much money the lobbyists have brought in -- about $2 million -- "it's relatively cheap, " Conner said.

The opera decided to hire a lobbyist at the advice of Sen. Larry Plummer in 1987. "He said the only way to get anything done was to get a lobbyist, " Conner said.

Plummer led them to the Hamersmith and Book team. Book lobbied the state; Hamersmith the locals.

But lawyer John Schulte, a member of the opera board, thought it wasn't enough. Schulte wanted a Republican, close to Gov. Bob Martinez. He recommended Hebrock, Martinez's finance chairman. "As far as appropriations were concerned, my involvement was to avoid a gubernatorial veto and to get Republican support, " Hebrock said, noting he was also paid to help with fund raising.

The arts community had been pushing for a change in how the state awarded money to arts institutions. They wanted the state to fund 10 percent of the budgets of the major arts groups statewide.

The major institutions bill failed in 1987. Still, the Legislature awarded the opera $250,000.

Opera general manager Robert Heuer assessed the 1987 lobbying effort in a memo after the session: "Book feels that the opera can receive up to $800,000 next year with proper efforts this coming year."

Among the suggestions: "Prior to the next legislative session, the Opera should host an event to thank the legislators and to give them some kind of award for their effort. This event should include Board and major patrons."

Book had another idea. Immediately send a framed poster with a small plaque reading "Bravo and thank you! Greater Miami Opera 1987" to Reps. Ron Silver, Mike Abrams, Fran Carlton, Bud Gardner and Jim Scott.

In an interview, Book explained: "I like members of the Legislature to think about my clients all the time. The best way for them to think of them all the time is to put something on their walls."

Keeping the legislators in office was also important: "Ron will contact us during the coming year to seek Board member contributions for a number of key legislators' campaign funds."

Book also contacted the opera for tickets for politicians.

Rep. Susan Guber got free tickets in 1987. She said she thought she had asked the opera for the tickets directly, but a memo states that Book got them for her. "I think it's in our best interest to see those shows, " she said of state-funded performances. "How do we know if it's lousy" -- and not a good use of state money, she said.

Book said that "probably less than 10" legislators have asked him for opera tickets.

The opera drafted an advocacy plan for 1988: Send Christmas cards and gifts to members of the Dade and Broward legislative delegations; host a party on a board member's yacht to say thank you.

The party never came off. But the lobbying was a big success.

In 1988, the Legislature awarded the opera $950,000. Some of the money was for a program to broadcast the opera on national public television and radio. The large appropriations have continued.

Hebrock withdrew in 1989. Book and Hamersmith expanded their roles beyond lobbying. Now, they also give advice to the opera and guide them with special projects.

"We find them quite wonderful to work with, " Conner said.

Book and Rep. Mike Abrams, D-North Miami Beach, hosted a fund-raising event for former Rep. Sam Bell that June.

"Sam, as you know, is Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and in that capacity has been a major advocate of the Miami Opera, " Book wrote to Heuer about the event. "We would like to request that you undertake to raise $3,500 for this event."

Nonprofit organizations cannot contribute to political campaigns. The money comes instead from members of the board and supporters. Opera members raised some money for Bell but didn't make the $3,500 goal.

"There are no quid pro quos in the process, nor have I ever had one suggested to me, " Book said.

"I think there's a mistaken perception that exists out there that you've got to do something to get something. That's not the way the system works. There are opportunities to be helpful to legislators. The way you can be most helpful is when they're running for re-election. You ask people to help support them."

For instance, Book also asked opera members to raise $5,000 for Sen. Gwen Margolis, then-chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

"Gwen Margolis is a good friend, " Conner said. "We handed her an envelope full of checks."

It wasn't the only time Book wrote the opera on behalf of Margolis, now the Senate president.

In August, Book asked the opera to rely on their friends at the ballet to get eight Nutcracker tickets for Margolis' office.

"If necessary, out of my costs related to the representation, I am prepared to pay for these tickets, " Book wrote. He said in an interview that the tickets were for the office staff, who offered to pay for them.

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