Student Body President Michael Kilbride could have a big uphill battle convincing the entire senate to approve giving his lobbyist a $10,000 raise, if two powerful senators continue their efforts to reduce student money spent on lobbying.
SGA Sen. Alan Hardman tried cutting the $10,000 raise to Kilbride’s GrayRobinson lobbyist during this week’s Activity & Service Fee meetings, then voted against funding the entire $56,500 after his motion to withhold the raise failed.
Hardman told the committee he didn’t think the raise would be a big enough benefit to the average student to be worth it.
“To increase this and allow it to balloon this year, and in following years, I think is not responsible,” Hardman said during the meeting.
When Kilbride presented his budget, he told the committee the reason for the $10,000 increase was due to a standard cost of living adjustment.
“We haven’t received an increase in the past three or four years,” Kilbride told the committee. “There’s traditionally a cost of living increase of about 5 percent on these type of agreements. We haven’t accumulated any, and it did come this year with GrayRobinson. So that’s where the increase came from, it was just standard, and it will probably now plateau for another three years. They just kind of have done it this way with us.”
But KnightNews.com obtained a copy of the City of Orlando’s GrayRobinson lobbying contract, where there was only one increase — from $25,000 to $27,500 annually — over a span of nine years.
Based on the information in Kilbride’s presentation, and after he praised GrayRobinson for helping represent students, everyone on the committee voted in favor of spending the $56,500 on a lobbyist, with the exception of Hardman and Sen. Fernando Gonzales, setting up a potential showdown when the recommended budget for next fiscal year comes before the entire Senate for approval in spring.
KnightNews.com emailed Fred Leonhardt, the main GrayRobinson lobbyist SGA deals with, to ask him why he charged a student government more than twice what he charged one of the biggest cities in the state for his lobbying services.
Leonhardt wrote an email back stating that “there is a significant difference in what we do for the City of Orlando and UCF SGA. First of all, we are part of a team of lobbyists for the City and are paid the least of all the team members. Simply, we are not the lead lobbyist for Orlando. We step in where called upon and assist the City with its legislative goals.”
Leonhardt added, “For UCF SGA, we provide not just representation before the State Legislature and Executive Branch, but also the City of Orlando and Orange County. This year, our services to UCF SGA increased with the new rules regarding the Board of Governors and student fees and tuition. We are now covering this organization and actively representing UCF SGA before the BOG.”
After finding out the City of Orlando retains three different lobbying firms for state issues, KnightNews.com compared SGA’s lobbying budget to that of other county governments.
The portion SGA spends on GrayRobinson alone exceeds the $50,000 the Orlando Sentinel reported Volusia County spends on lobbying, and is slightly less than Seminole County’s reported $60,000 lobbying budget. Volusia County boasts a half million residents, while Seminole county has 410,000 residents, according to census data.
UCF’s SGA has a little more than 10 percent of that many constituents, with about 56,000 students.
Records show the UCF Student Government Association budgeted nearly $100,000 on lobbying organizations this current fiscal year, including $56,500 to retain the GrayRobinson firm, and $38,500 for membership in the Florida Student Association — a coalition of SGA’s from across the state that speak for students as a whole. (We found this link to the FSA website, although it appears it hasn’t been updated since 2004.)
The nearly six figures records show SGA had allocated for lobbying oganizations is just shy of the $110,000 the Orlando Sentinel reports Orange County pays two lobbying firms to represent its interests. Though the amount spent on lobbying organizations is almost equal, the total budgets of SGA and Orange County are not even close.
Orange County Commissioner Linda Stewart told KnightNews.com Orange County’s budget is about $3 billion a year. SGA has a budget of only $17 million a year.
Despite the relatively large percentage of resources SGA pours into lobbying efforts, they have not staved off tuition increases, the creation of a new differential tuition not covered by Bright Futures, or prevented the possibility of Block Tuition from being charged to students at Florida universities.
ARE STUDENTS PAYING LOBBYISTS TO FIGHT FOR TUITION HIKES?
To be fair to the lobbying firm, however, it appears SGA has routinely joined with UCF administrators in the past to push for tuition hikes. During the meeting, Kilbride said that former SGA President Logan Berkowitz joined UCF President John Hitt to push for such hikes during a trip to Tallahasseee.
And Gallop Franklin, the student body president of FAMU who was elected by the Florida Student Association to sit on the Board of Governors, which now has increased power in setting tuition and fees, told KnightNews.com earlier this year that Kilbride told him he supported raising tuition to the maximum levels, so that’s why Gallop voted in favor of that happening at UCF.
During the Board of Governors meeting where a regulation was imposed which makes it possible for universities to request a Block Tuition charge, Gallop admitted to KnightNews.com that basically every student body president he talked to opposed it. He later voted for the regulation anyway. Gallop indicated he believed the time to oppose any imprudent imposition of block tuition should come during the proposals from universities, not during the vote to allow universities to make them.
But because candidates for SGA sometimes make promises to oppose tuition hikes, and other unpopular policies among students, KnightNews.com asked Leonhardt, who also is retained by the UCF Foundation, which tends to represent Hitt’s agenda and interests, how he can effectively do his job when students and administration can have different goals.
“Because we are a law firm, and not just another lobby firm, we are governed by the Florida Bar’s Rules Regulating the Practice of Law, which include many rules on ‘conflicts,'” Leonhardt wrote. “These rules prohibit us from representing two clients in direct conflict. In all matters that were a conflict, we have deferred to SGA, because we were engaged by SGA first and we agreed to such in our contract. Frankly, this issue has arisen so little that I can’t recall the last time it came up. But when/if it does, we stand with SGA.”
KILBRIDE CHANGES HIS STORY — TWICE
After KnightNews.com published an earlier version of this story, and after asking for Leonhardt’s response, Kilbride issued a statement to KnightNews.com which ignored his previous statement that a “cost of living” increase was the reason for raising GrayRobinson’s rates by $10,000.
“Gray/Robinson has been an outstanding community partner and representative of UCF Student Government,” Kilbride’s statement read. “Their team continues to work to promote the achievements of our student body and Orlando’s hometown University. This year, SGA expanded Gray/Robinson’s responsibilities to lobbying both the Board of Governors and State Legislature on our behalf. They continue to effectively advocate for the nation’s second largest student body.”
KnightNews.com responded to Kilbride’s spokesperson asking for clarification about why he first told the committee the increase was due to a cost of living increase, and whether Kilbride was mistaken when he did so, but no direct clarification was given.
Instead, Kilbride’s spokesperson sent another statement saying, “President Kilbride also mentioned that Gray/Robinson’s responsibilities had increased due to working with the Board of Governors.”
KnightNews.com responded and again pressed for an explanation about the cost of living increase reasoning he shared the committee, but the email was not returned. This incident marks at least the second time during the A&SF budget meetings that Kilbride provided information to the board he backed away from after the committee had moved on. The other incident referred to a contract for KnightLynx Kilbride believed was already in the hands of the UCF General Counsel, but still hadn’t left the office of adviser Christa Coffey.
LOBBYISTS ENTERTAIN SGA LEADERS IN WASHINGTON DC
Another perk to having a well connected lobbyist represent SGA, enjoyed by select SGA leaders, is a chance to be invited to join lobbyists and community leaders on a trip to Washington DC, that SGA leaders have paid for on the student’s dime.
The trip, dubbed the “DC Fly-in” by SGA insiders, involves flying up to the nation’s capital in the name of lobbying politicians and leaders on behalf of UCF. However, KnightNews.com has learned SGA leaders have also found plenty of time to enjoy themselves and sight see on these trips.
It’s not clear what proportion of the time is spent on recreational activities versus lobbying, as KnightNews.com has no record of any press release every being sent out regarding any of these trips to DC.
MEN-ONLY PARTIES WITH LAVISH MEALS BRING CONTROVERSY
The lobbyist SGA chooses to represent it in the community does have strong connections to powerful people, however, he has also made political foes of some powerful women.
Orange County Mayor-Elect Teresa Jacobs called for an investigation into her then-opponent, Commissioner Bill Segal, for Segal’s partying with the No Name Club — gatherings where Leonhardt reportedly entertained Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty and commissioners, “where complimentary Sea Bass, prime rib and grilled lobster tails were served with free drinks and cigars.”
According to the Sentinel: “The get-togethers … were co-organzied by lobbyist Fred Leonhardt, an attorney with the GrayRobinson law firm. Two of the events held during the past year or so were sponsored by Centerplate, the company awarded a 10-year, $300 million food and beverage contract at the Orange County Convention Center in 2008. Leonhardt is a lobbyist for Centerplate.”
Jacobs and Commissioner Linda Stewart, both opponents of Segal at the time, critisized the men-only affairs and raised ethical questions about them. Leonhardt supported Segal in the race for mayor, and his loss is one less strong connection he’ll have in representing SGA in front of Orange County, county insiders told KnightNews.com.
SGA Sen. Brittany Lane, who often goes by NikkiNicho, has also raised questions about UCF’s lobbyist. She’ll have a voice — and a vote — when the lobbying contract comes up for debate in front of the SGA Senate, after the A&SF Committee sends it to that body.
She did not hide her feelings on KnightNews.com’s comment section and Facebook page Thursday.
“GrayRobinson is a sham,” she wrote. “I recommended not to use this firm for these reasons at the beginning of the year, however it would be negligent to blame the use of that lobbiyst on Kilbride’s administration as the same firm has been used for many many SGA administrations and is the same one working for the UCF foundation. GrayRobinson literally works for everyone in Central Florida and is scamming them all out of their money and using their power to pull all of the strings when it comes down to the actual decision making.”
KnightNews.com will follow the A&SF budget process during the committee recommendation phase, and also into the Senate — where the final vote counts. Check back for continuing coverage on how your $17 million is spent.