Jeb Bush had just completed his successful campaign for re-election and now confronted a second term as governor of Florida. Seeking to shape his immediate agenda, he solicited advice from one of his most trusted advisors: David Rancourt, his former deputy chief of staff, who had since become a corporate lobbyist at one of the most powerful firms in the state, the Southern Strategy Group.
“If you were governor, what would you be focusing on for the next two or three years,” Bush wrote Rancourt in an email dated Aug. 13, 2003. “What initiatives do you think we should pursue? How do you think we should do it?”
Two days after sending that note, Bush effectively delivered on one of Southern Strategy Group’s key aims: He signed legislation limiting the dollar value of damages that hospitals and insurance companies could be forced to pay to resolve instances of medical malpractice. The Florida Supreme Court would eventually overturn the bill, arguing that it effectively punished victims of mistreatment in hospitals. But at least for the moment, the governor’s signature handed a victory to Rancourt’s firm, which represented a major association of hospitals. It added to the cachet of the Southern Strategy Group, whose leadership was drawn heavily from the ranks of former Bush staff members and trusted associates.
When Jeb Bush formally announced his campaign for the White House last week, his speech included a prominent denunciation of lobbyists and the fashion in which they enable well-connected insiders to pull the levers of power at the expense of the public. He vowed to avoid “the culture that has made lobbying the premier growth industry in the nation’s capital,” a mode he claimed to have fought relentlessly in Florida. “I was a governor who refused to accept that as the normal or right way of conducting the people’s business,” he said.
But those words contrast with Bush’s long-standing relationship with the Southern Strategy Group, whose lobbyists enjoyed extraordinary access to his gubernatorial administration, an International Business Times investigation has found.
According to IBTimes’ review of email correspondence between Jeb Bush, his top aides and Southern Strategy Group lobbyists, the firm frequently engineered meetings with the governor for its clients. A lobbyist at the firm helped write two of his major speeches. In some instances, Bush sought the direct input of Southern Strategy lobbyists as he crafted his legislative agenda, and he gave them private glimpses of public policy as they represented the corporate interests that had a financial stake in his decisions.
The correspondence reviewed by IBTimes includes roughly 75 email conversations between Bush and his aides with Southern Strategy Group lobbyists between 1999 and 2006. The emails are among the 280,000 that Bush released publicly earlier this year in preparation for his presidential campaign. These emails were subsequently compiled and made searchable by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.
Bush’s campaign and Southern Strategy Group did not respond to questions from IBTimes about the propriety of their relationship. Ethics experts say the emails sent between Bush and Southern Strategy Group lobbyists reveal that those with business interests hinging on Bush’s decision-making as governor were able to use the firm to gain access to power while ultimately influencing Florida policies in their favor.
"Asking politically connected lobbyists for input on policy is exactly part of the ‘culture that has made lobbying the premier growth industry in the nation's capital,’” said Craig Holman, an ethics expert at the watchdog group Public Citizen. “For Jeb Bush to suggest that he was some kind of reformer in Tallahassee [the capital of Florida] given the level of influence that lobbyists had over his administration, is preposterous."
Ron Book, a top Tallahassee lobbyist, said he was “taken by surprise” by Bush’s depiction of himself as a crusader against the lobbying industry. When Bush was governor, “I never felt like I didn’t get an opportunity to make my case on behalf of my clients,” Book told IBTimes. “I never felt like he shut us out.”
Though Bush has been criticizing what he calls “swarms of lobbyists” that dominate politics, he has tapped lobbyists aggressively for campaign contributions. Florida records show that he raised $1.1 million from lawyers and lobbyists for his gubernatorial campaigns. Bush also approved a plan to marshal corporate lobbyists to push a bill exempting financial firms from the state’s open records laws.
In the course of his current campaign for the White House, Bush has held several Washington-area fundraisers with lobbying firms. Many of Washington's most prominent lobbyists have raised money for and provided advice to his presidential campaign.
As Bush presses his run for the White House, he is being closely advised by Sally Bradshaw, his former chief of staff when he was Florida governor. Sally Bradshaw is the wife of Paul Bradshaw, who founded the Southern Strategy Group. One of the firm’s lobbyists is reportedly raising money for Bush’s 2016 run.
Paul Bradshaw previously served in the Florida government as a budget and policy aide, working alongside Jeb Bush in the administration of Republican Gov. Bob Martinez. He launched Southern Strategy Group with Rancourt in 1999, just a year after his wife helped engineer Bush’s elevation to the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee. The new firm quickly brought on former Florida House Speaker John Thrasher as a vice president.
Over the course of Bush's eight years as Florida governor, the Southern Strategy Group made $1,500 worth of donations to his campaigns. The firm and its top employees also sent more than $76,000 to the Florida Republican Party, according to data compiled by the National Institute on Money in State Politics. At the same time, the three principal government officials-turned-lobbyists who ran the company -- Rancourt, Bradshaw and Thrasher -- all became wealthy, as blue-chip corporations hired them to represent their interests in dealings with the Florida government.
Fruits of Lobbying
By all appearances, many of Southern Strategy Group’s clients have gotten their money’s worth.
In 2002, Paul Bradshaw retained Thrasher to help out his friend at a company called Infinity Software. Employees there were worried that the Bush administration might end its contract overseeing a website for the Florida Department of Education, according to an email.
Infinity appeared to enjoy especially close dealings with state leaders. Months earlier, the company had sought to hire Bush’s daughter.
Paul Bradshaw emailed Bush directly seeking reassurance that the contract would be preserved. Bradshaw explained that Infinity was no longer a paying client of the Southern Strategy Group. Still, he added, “I remain personal friends with Tom Lynch,” the Infinity CEO, “and he asked me as a favor to check on the status of his contract with DOE.”
Bush was already one step ahead of Bradshaw. Three days before, he had defended the company to Jim Horne, his appointee at the state's department of education. Infinity’s contract was ultimately preserved. Two years later, Southern Strategy had secured a new paying client: Infinity Software.
In March 2003, after cruising to re-election, Bush used his annual “State of the State” address to champion the cause of one of Southern Strategy’s largest clients, the Florida Hospital Association. He urged Florida lawmakers to pass legislation establishing limits on compensation to victims of medical malpractice.
“The high cost of medical malpractice insurance -- or the lack of it altogether -- has created a crisis in our state,” Bush said. “This crisis is not about costs, although ours are among the highest in the nation. This crisis is about the quality and availability of healthcare for our people.”
According to state records, Southern Strategy’s legislative specialist, Thrasher, began lobbying that year for the Florida Hospital Association, whose members had a direct financial stake in limiting the size of malpractice awards. Emails show that Thrasher and Bush were in direct communication about the best strategy for gaining the necessary votes on the bill.
A day after Bush publicly called on lawmakers to work on a medical malpractice bill, Thrasher advised Bush on the state of play in the legislature as well as the attendance at his weekly meetings of lobbyists for interested parties. Thrasher said Bush should “drop by our meeting and pump up the troops.”
Two months later in May, Thrasher updated Bush on efforts in the legislature. Thrasher recommended Bush call a special legislative session to focus on medical malpractice, once a budget was passed. Thrasher told Bush the special session “gives you the maximum leverage.”
“I agree,” Bush wrote back. “Sooner better than later, but I am patient.”
Bush convened a special session the following month -- the first of three that would be focused on capping payouts in medical malpractice cases. That August, Florida lawmakers passed the bill that Bush signed, setting a $500,000 limit on jury awards for damages such as pain and suffering in most medical malpractice cases.
Last year, the Florida Supreme Court struck down the law, portraying it as a giveaway to the insurance industry.
“The cap on noneconomic damages serves no purpose other than to arbitrarily punish the most grievously injured or their surviving family members,” the court declared.
In April 2002, Gov. Bush vetoed a bill backed by Southern Strategy and one of its major clients, the telecommunications colossus AT&T. The bill would have allowed AT&T and other telephone providers to significantly raise prices on local calls.
In October of that year, as Sally Bradshaw was overseeing Bush’s re-election campaign, her husband emailed the governor to request a personal meeting with a special client: AT&T.
“How's life?” began the email from Paul Bradshaw. He asked Bush to meet with a government relations executive for AT&T. “Would love to meet the man,” Bush replied.
The following year, a similar bill landed on Bush’s desk giving AT&T the right to substantially increase rates for local calls in Florida. This time, the governor signed it into law, saying the measure would increase competition.
In 2006, with Bradshaw still serving as a registered lobbyist for AT&T, Bush’s appointees on the Florida Public Service Commission approved the controversial merger between AT&T and BellSouth, dismissing the objections of consumer groups in Florida and across much of the nation.
A Conduit To The White House
Emails reviewed by IBTimes suggest that Southern Strategy Group lobbyists viewed Governor Bush and his Florida staff as a means of gaining access to his brother’s presidential administration. In July 2003, when Southern Strategy Group’s client, TECO Energy, was seeking to maintain a lucrative federal tax credit, Bradshaw wrote to Jeb Bush’s office for help.
At the time, the Internal Revenue Service was investigating whether TECO and other utility providers were sufficiently complying with the rules for a tax credit for synthetic fuel production. Paul Bradshaw emailed Kathleen Shanahan, his wife's successor as Bush's chief of staff, requesting assistance in setting up a meeting with the U.S. Treasury Secretary John Snow.
“The CEO of TECO would like a 30-minute audience with Treasury Secretary Snow to voice the concerns of the industry,” Bradshaw wrote. “Any suggestions on how to get this done in D.C.? This is not a veiled way to request the Governor's direct help.”
Shanahan quickly shifted the state of Florida’s lobbyist in D.C. into action, while copying Gov. Bush on the email. A few months later, the IRS reversed course and ruled that TECO and its competitors could continue to receive the tax credit -- despite objections from an IRS employee who later told the Wall Street Journal that the agency had given into political pressure generated by the energy industry’s coordinated lobbying campaign.
In the spring of 2003, the state of Florida canceled a contract worth as much as $126 million to purchase information technology services from a Virginia-based company called BearingPoint. The governor’s office acted after BearingPoint’s rivals complained that the contract had been awarded without adequate competition.
But BearingPoint unleashed a key asset: its lobbying firm, Southern Strategy Group. In June of that year, Rancourt sent a blistering email to Bush’s deputy chief of staff, Denver Stutler, demanding a meeting to revisit the contract with BearingPoint.
“I really need your undivided attention,” Rancourt wrote. “You might have an idea what this conversation regards.”
Rancourt was adamant that he gain a meeting with Sutler “for a good half-hour tomorrow afternoon.”
In a clear sign of his irritation, Rancourt intimated that he was due a favor from the governor’s office. “I would add that save getting a retarded girl who was raped some money from the people who not only neglected her, but forced her back into the situation so she could be raped again, that I have NEVER asked our governor personally for support on anything I have ever been paid for,” he wrote. “AND I am NOT getting paid for the work I did for the retarded girl.”
Stutler forwarded Rancourt’s email directly to Gov. Bush. Two months later, on August 13, Bush’s technology office signed a new outsourcing contract with BearingPoint for the lion’s share of the original deal.
The following year, Florida’s auditor general determined that the deal was problematic, concluding that "the competitive process may have been circumvented.” Soon after, the state ended the contract.
In January 2004, Bush emailed “alumni” of his administration to provide an exclusive preview of a speech on an issue central to many of their current interests. “This is our first salvo with the healthcare issue,” he wrote. He attached a draft of his speech.
The roster of people who received that email had more than a casual interest in the governor’s plans to overhaul the state’s healthcare system. Among Bush’s initiatives was a proposal to let health insurers offer cheaper plans with fewer benefits than required under existing state regulations.
The list of recipients included public relations consultants, Republican political operatives, lawyers, and lobbyists -- not only Rancourt but also another former Bush staff member who was then earning a paycheck at Southern Strategy, Christopher Dudley.
Two months later, Bush sent another email to his alumni group, with an embargoed draft of his annual budget address attached. “Enclosed you will find my budget remarks to be given in five minutes,” wrote Bush. “I know budget day will bring back fond memories. :)”
‘A Great Profit Without Any Development Risk’
In September 2006, with real estate prices in free fall and panic seizing much of the state’s economy, Bush and state officials were debating the merits of a proposed $50 million purchase of forest and wetlands near Orlando, Florida, to protect it from possible future development. The land under consideration was called “Joshua Creek.” It was owned by a developer called Land South Hunters, which was itself an affiliate of Land South Holdings, a company that enjoyed the labors of a well-connected lobbyist in Tallahassee -- Rancourt of the Southern Strategy Group.
Bush voiced concerns that the state was paying far too much at a time in which Florida real estate values were plummeting. “I get emotional when a guy a year ago bought something for $32 million and wants to sell it to us for $50 [million],” said Bush, according to minutes from the meeting. “The worm has turned on real estate prices. Every article in the paper, every paper is writing about it. And I just do not believe that we should necessarily be the purchaser that always shows up with the big number.”
After hearing from Bush, state officials opted to defer voting on land acquisition for two weeks. Rancourt then emailed Bush after the meeting seeking to get together to discuss the land deal.
“My purpose is not to make the case for any specific agreement but merely to ascertain if additional information would make it worthwhile to continue discussions on this piece of property,” Rancourt said. “I am happy to arrive alone or to have my client from Lakeland with me at the meeting if that would be beneficial. That is your call of course, as well as if you are interested in sitting down at all. I would appreciate the opportunity but will understand if you have made your decision.”
Bush responded later that night. “Thank you David. If we can schedule something, I am happy to meet,” he wrote. Bush said his aide would meet with Rancourt otherwise, and blind-copied two members of his staff on the email. Two weeks later, Bush and top state officials discussed the project again, with Land South Hunters’ owner and lawyer present.
“If we purchase this, you're going to make a great profit without any development risk,” Bush told the lawyer, according to minutes of the meeting. “We're buying it from you, and we don't factor that into our appraisal. I think that's just wrong.”
Those concerns notwithstanding, Bush and his cabinet voted to approve the terms of the deal. Not for the first time, Southern Strategy Group had appeared to deliver for its client.
Read all of the emails between Bush and Southern Strategy Group while he was governor: