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Saturday, October 12, 2002

E-mails at odds with Feeney denials

Staff Writer

TALLAHASSEE -- Despite repeated claims that he never used his influence to benefit his client, House Speaker Tom Feeney arranged at least one meeting between state officials and an Oviedo computer firm that was having trouble with its state contract.

E-mails obtained by The Daytona Beach News-Journal through the state's public records law contradict statements made by the Oviedo Republican to the state Ethics Commission, which cleared him of ethical missteps surrounding his ties to his client, Yang Enterprises.

Yang's dealings with the state have been at the heart of an ongoing dispute over questionable invoices in its $8 million technology contract with the Florida Department of Transportation.

Longwood Democrat Harry Jacobs has attacked Feeney's relationship with the firm in the race for a congressional seat that includes part of Volusia County.

Feeney, who doubles as Yang's general counsel and lobbyist in Orange County, told ethics investigators that he had not spoken to "anyone at FDOT or the State Technology Office concerning the Yangs."

But the e-mails show Feeney, then incoming House speaker, arranged a meeting in Oviedo in July 2000 between his client and Roy Cales, head of the State Technology Office and the official with the most say over state computer contracts.

Asked Friday if Feeney used his influence on Yang's behalf with Roy Cales, Feeney spokeswoman Kim Stone wrote "no" in an e-mailed response.

Stone and Ralph Gonzalez of Feeney's campaign did not respond to questions concerning the meetings arranged with state officials for Yang.

Feeney sponsored an earlier meeting for Yang in Tallahassee with Cales, Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Tom Barry and Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan, records show.

After the Oviedo meeting, Yang wrote to DOT officials to say it was very successful. Cales later wrote Feeney, "I am most interested in pursuing additional conversations with them (the Yangs) to determine the most effective way to utilize their expertise."

Sylvester Lukis, a spokesman for Yang, at first denied in an interview Friday that Feeney arranged any meetings for Yang owners Tyng-Lin Yang and Li-Woan Yang with state officials. But later, when told about the e-mails, he confirmed Feeney had set them up.

"Apparently Mr. Feeney did arrange some meetings with Mr. Cales, but it had nothing to do with the (DOT) contract," he said. "I'm not going to comment on Mr. Feeney and whether he did anything wrong."

Lukis said the Yangs were innocent of any misdeeds, describing them as "hard-working people" who have been unfairly caught in the political crossfire.

Feeney's relationship with Yang has been at the forefront of TV ads and at press events by Jacobs in the contest for the newly created U.S. House District 24.

In Feeney's only interview with The News-Journal on the matter, he said he may have spoken to Cales about the Yangs in a social context and in connection to a state technology task force on which his clients served, but never about the contract.

Feeney denied helping Yang, even after the firm was accused of submitting fraudulent invoices in its contract with DOT to provide software.

DOT is still investigating those claims, which were made by two state workers who have since been fired.

Feeney continued to be copied on correspondence in the dispute long after he said he advised the Yangs to hire a Tallahassee lobbying firm to handle the matter, records show.

And a worker in Feeney's law office called state officials demanding that a letter praising Yang be signed -- despite the ongoing contract dispute -- by Cales and a DOT official and faxed to Feeney without delay.

While Feeney points to the decision by the state Ethics Commission as evidence he did nothing wrong, government watchdog groups said the affair raises troubling questions about the commission's investigation and the dual roles played by members of a part-time Legislature, such as Florida's.

The practice by any member of a part-time Legislature of mixing public and private business "wears a little thin," said John Dunbar, senior associate with the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C. "These guys running for office can parse out explanations for anything they want.

"Ultimately, when the story is out there, the voters have to ask themselves a question: Did this guy help his career on my back?"

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