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Provision to help Pruitt's employer pulled from bill

Martin County Democrats

Provision to help Pruitt's employer pulled from bill

By S.V. Date, Jennifer Sorentrue
Palm Beach Post Staff Writers

Monday, May 15, 2006

TALLAHASSEE — An ally of incoming Senate President Ken Pruitt attempted to place in an affordable housing bill a provision to help the homebuilder who has been paying Pruitt $2,000 a month, but withdrew it after top Senate staffers began asking questions.

Republican Sen. Mike Fasano sponsored the changes that would have allowed the use of structures certified to withstand Category 5 hurricanes in mobile home parks "in order to expand the option for affordable housing in this state."

Pruitt's employer, Royal Palm Beach homebuilder Wally Sanger, makes mobile homes and classrooms with prefabricated concrete walls. One of his company's Web sites advertises: "Walls built to withstand hurricane winds of 150 mph to 240 mph."

Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, did not return phone calls or e-mails for this article. Sanger did not return phone calls or a faxed request for an interview.

Fasano said the idea was brought to him by lobbyist Richard Coates, but that he did not know Coates represented Royal Management LLC, the business Sanger has used to pay Pruitt. Fasano said staff members from Senate President Tom Lee's office and Pruitt's office called him to ask him to pull the amendment.

Coates, a prominent Republican lawyer and lobbyist who has earned $124,000 in legal fees from the state party since 2004, also did not return phone calls.

"When I found out it was going to be just one person and one company, I withdrew the amendment," Fasano said. He added that although he and Pruitt are close, Pruitt never discussed the matter with him. "Oh, my goodness, no. Absolutely not. He and I don't talk about every amendment.... I had no idea that Wally Sanger is Ken Pruitt's employer."

Also in the legislative session that finished this month, Fasano, R-New Port Richey, attempted to insert into an identity-theft bill wording written by Bank of America that would have helped the company keep $100 million in unclaimed bank fees in an ongoing whistle-blowers' lawsuit. He withdrew that amendment after the St. Petersburg Times published an article about it.

Pruitt began earning $2,000 a month from Royal Management in 2003, the same year he started making payments totaling slightly less than that on a new 3,134-square-foot house Sanger built for him in Port St. Lucie. Pruitt has said he worked to help Sanger on various projects in the Treasure Coast and surrounding areas, but has declined to provide detailed invoices or logs showing specifically what he did.

Sanger also declined to provide invoices or other documentation. At one time, he told The Palm Beach Post that he paid Pruitt "$2,000 per month for anything I need from him."

Pruitt helped Sanger's concrete building business in the legislature at least once before.

In 1997, Pruitt, then a House budget subcommittee chairman, inserted language into a school construction bill favorable to Sanger and three other Pruitt friends and political allies, according to a sworn deposition in a 2005 lawsuit involving the four partners. The four incorporated Royall Educational Systems five days after the law was passed to market concrete portable classrooms.

During the past two sessions, Lee's office has routinely examined amendments filed to bills to determine whether they have been written to benefit a particular person or business. Adding amendments late during each session is a method lawmakers and lobbyists have traditionally used to pass legislation beneficial to their friends and clients without the scrutiny that accompanies the formal process of filing bills and having them analyzed by staff and discussed in committees.

Fasano's amendment to the housing bill, SB 132, was filed April 28, the Friday of the next-to-last week of the legislative session, according to documents filed on the Senate Web site. He modified the amendment in another filing at 4:14 p.m. May 1, the Monday of the final week of the session.

The two versions were withdrawn at 8:08 and 8:09 a.m. May 2 after Senate staff flagged them at a meeting, Fasano said.

Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton and the affordable housing bill's sponsor, said he did not know that the proposal was intended to help Sanger. He said he believed the amendment was supposed to help a Manatee County commissioner who recently started a concrete modular business.

Bennett added that he also wanted the amendment withdrawn because he was angry at the commissioner for criticizing Bennett in a newspaper article.