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Former lobbyist Jack Abramoff comes to Tallahassee to decry big money in solar fight

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Infamous former Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff spoke in the state capital Tuesday morning, as he joined forces with fellow conservatives in support of lobbying and ethics reforms.

Abramoff’s appearance came amid a heated battle between utilities and environmentalist groups over a pair of solar energy amendments set to appear on Florida ballots in 2016.

Abramoff, who pled guilty in 2006 to conspiracy, fraud, and tax evasion in federal court over a scheme to defraud Native American-run casino interests, told reporters special interests are “confusing matters” in the row over solar in Florida using “pass-through” committees and other tactics he used on Washington D.C.’s K Street at the height of his powers.

“My interest in this is here, yet again, an industry has threats to its profit margins and is taking steps … within the political process to support their profit line,” said Abramoff. “And all of that is unfortunately something too common in America today.”

Abramoff was brought to town at the behest — and expense — of Debbie Dooley, a conservative activist with the so-called “Green Tea Party” movement of Republicans in favor of pro-solar energy initiatives and against state-backed utilities who seek to block them.

Dooley and Abramoff are both former devotees of the Christian Coalition, a political organization run by notorious hard-right lobbyist, activist and evangelist Ralph Reed, who was also implicated in the 2006 case.

Dooley said Abramoff’s 2013 book Capitol Punishment was an “eye-opener” for her, saying it revealed to her how big-money interests — like the ones opposing her favored proposal — “are willing to lie, deceive, and pour hundreds of millions of dollars” into self-serving causes.

Conservatives for Energy Freedom, a 501(c) 4 group that does not disclose its donors or expenditures, supports Dooley and paid for Abramoff’s trip.

Asked why Dooley chose to employ the same kind of committee she accuses of serving as “front groups” for powerful interests, she said it was to attract donors unwilling to expose their information publicly, and that her expenses were relatively minimal compared 501(c) 4 groups on the other side of the issue.

“You’re talking about $7,000 a month in total, nationwide,” Dooley said, though that is not verifiable until she files a 990 tax form for the group. “I’m driving a 2010 Hyundai Sonata with 200,000 miles on it. I had to rent a car to come down here.”

“It’s a 501(c) 4 because hopefully some of the money from the huge foundations and stuff like that — they just give to supers,” said Dooley, added referring to the “Super PAC” appellation given to groups bearing the tax designation.

Dooley would not disclose how much her group paid Abramoff to appear in Tallahassee, besides remarking it was “mostly travel expenses.”

Sarah Bascom, spokesperson for Floridians for Smart Solar, an advocacy group campaigning for an opposing solar amendment in next year’s election, issued the following on the occasion of Abramoff’s visit.

“This is just another media stunt to distract from what really matters — how their amendment would make Florida consumers victims of solar scams and force higher electric bills on Floridians to subsidize out-of-state solar companies,” said Bascom.

“It’s pretty ironic for Shady Solar supporters to bring the most corrupt lobbyist in American history to Florida to decry ‘dark money’ and his trip and press events (and presumably his speaking fees) are sponsored by one of their ‘dark money’ groups,” Bascom added.

Ryan Ray writes about campaigns and public policy in Tampa Bay and across the state. A contributor to FloridaPolitics.com and before that, The Florida Squeeze, he covers the Legislature as a member of the Florida Capitol Press Corps and has worked as a staffer on several campaigns. He can be reached at ryan@floridapolitics.com.

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