The state Senate has closed an investigation into whether the National Rifle Association‘s (NRA) Florida lobbyist, Marion Hammer, broke state law by failing to disclose payments from the organization — essentially clearing her of blame.
In a letter to Hammer, Rules Committee chair Lizbeth Benacquisto concurred with the findings of an Office of Legislative Services (OLS) report and said Hammer’s compensation reports simply needed to be “amended.”
Hammer also is executive director of Unified Sportsmen of Florida (USF), an NRA adjunct in the state. The probe began after a complaint was lodged by state Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat. He said Friday’s outcome “show(s) the power of the National Rifle Association in the Florida Legislature. It is not a pretty picture.”
Benacquisto, a Fort Myers Republican, told Hammer she had been “directed by OLS to amend your registration to associate a lobbying firm, namely USF, and USF was directed to file the appropriate compensation reports.
“I have been advised both you and USF have complied with these directives,” she added. “As a result, I see no reason to take further action at this time. The Senate considers this matter closed.”
In an email, Hammer said she was “pleased that this matter has been concluded.
“I have been a registered lobbyist since 1974. That is not and never has been a secret. I have never told anyone that I was not a lobbyist,” she said.
“When lobbyist firm filings first became required in Florida, I diligently sought out advice from the General Counsel of the Florida Senate to ask whether I needed to file anything differently than I had been doing for 30 plus years. I was told that I did not have any additional filing requirements as a lobbyist.
“Thus, in good faith I relied upon that advice. As the filings are a non-issue to me, I would have done so all along had I been so informed,” Hammer added. “However, I am less than happy that the officials handling and commenting on these matters did not highlight the important point that I did not do anything wrong except rely on the advice of counsel.”
In his own statement, Senate President Bill Galvano pointed out that the OLS report concluded Unified Sportsmen of Florida was in fact “not in compliance with Florida law regarding the filing of compensation reports.”
Lobbying firms, as well as contract lobbyists, are required to file reports detailing compensation received for their lobbying efforts.
But the investigation “found that Marion Hammer’s compensation for lobbying comes from the Unified Sportsmen of Florida as an employee and therefore … she is an employee lobbyist — not a ‘lobbying firm’ or a ‘contract lobbyist’ required in her individual capacity to file compensation reports,” Galvano said.
“The investigation also found that Unified Sportsmen of Florida derives compensation from the National Rifle Association for lobbying, and is therefore a lobbying firm required under Florida law to file lobbyist compensation reports.”
He too said he had “been advised by the Office of Legislative Services that these directives have been complied with; therefore, I consider this matter closed.”
The Bulldog also cited documents showing Hammer was paid $134,000 in 2017 “for legislative lobbying in Florida,” as well as additional payments in 2014 and 2015, totaling $525,000.
Thurston in particular has raised questions in the past about the NRA’s influence over legislation permitting teachers to arm themselves after undergoing training as part of the state’s “guardian” program.
In a tweet, Eskamani called the conclusion “both disappointing & expected.”
“… Colleagues refuse to hold @lobbyist Marion Hammer accountable — bucking the process of a select committee & opting for OLS, allowing Hammer to get away w/no repercussions,” Eskamani said.
State law allows each chamber of the Legislature to assign a committee to investigate potential violations of the reporting requirements. House Speaker José Oliva had not commented on the investigation as of mid-Friday afternoon.
“Since filing the sworn complaint, I have been deeply concerned about the Senate’s willingness to abandon its own rules governing complaints filed against lobbyists such as in this case,” Thurston, a former House member, said in a statement.
“These were the very rules we voted on and adopted during Organization Session in November 2018, which compelled an investigation by the Rules Committee once a complaint is submitted.
“Had the Rules Committee followed this mandatory procedure, the people of Florida would have witnessed a much more transparent process, allowing both Republicans and Democrats to probe the facts, bring forward the evidence, and arrive at the appropriate conclusion. Short-circuiting that obligation leaves in high doubt the findings that we are presented with today.
“The Office of Legislative Services had neither the jurisdiction nor the authority to compel the production of documents, or compel testimony under oath, both of which were critically needed to arrive at the truth.
“The report issued today serves as a bitter reminder of the powerful grip Ms. Hammer and the NRA continue to maintain over the Republican-led Florida Legislature.”
Background for this post came from previously published reports by South Florida Correspondent Ryan Nicol.
Benacquisto’s letter, the OLS report and another letter, from OLS General Counsel Audrey Moore, are below.
Further documentation from the investigation also is below.