Spinning His Deals

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John McKay, the man who comes off in Tallahassee as deliberate, reserved — even statesmanlike — is a different character from the man his hometown of Bradenton has come to know.

Those who follow the Senate president through the public-records trail of business partnerships and personal conflicts see a John McKay whose behavior is opportunistic and vindictive at best, ethically dubious at worst.

You might suspect local politicians, for instance, would be grateful for the power of a Florida Senate president representing their turf. Not so in Sarasota, where county commissioners resent McKay for what they view as retaliation. The gutsy commission told McKay no last year when he and partners wanted to pave over a Sarasota County wetland.

Now those commissioners say they're paying the price. At a recent praise-fest of other lawmakers, commissioners left out McKay, who they say retaliated for their stalling of his project. Commissioner Jon Thaxton called McKay "the obvious saboteur," viewing it as no coincidence that — after the commissioners denied McKay's wetlands-paving idea — money for a sewer project dried up, and Sarasota County lost power on a regional board dealing with vital water issues. The Sarasota-Bradenton Airport Authority — long a McKay target — took a pounding, too.

Contacted on his cell phone, McKay expressed annoyance at having been directly reached, asking repeatedly, "How did you get this number?" He declined to engage in conversation, insisting that a formal interview request be made in writing to his office. Once that request was made, McKay communicated through a staff person that he would be answering none of the questions.

The questions involved these key facts:

McKay is a longtime developer and real estate professional in Bradenton. He holds an office in Florida that reportedly makes him second in power only to Jeb Bush. In addition to the dignity of this high office, McKay is involved in multimillion-dollar real estate development deals in Manatee and Sarasota counties, playing with the big boys such as Sarasota's high-powered businessman David Band. And yet, pleading poverty, he now is suing his first wife and the mother of his three daughters. He wants to stop paying $3,300 each month in alimony, even though the courts gave Deborah Dye a permanent stipend after her 24-year marriage to McKay collapsed following his high-profile affair with a lobbyist in Tallahassee in the mid-'90s. Dye, an elementary school teacher by profession, has never remarried.

Also, McKay used his Senate public trust to elevate two of his Bradenton business partners and associates (developer Ron Allen and lawyer Ed Vogler) — and to retain a third (developer and former politician Pat Neal) on the state Ethics Commission that holds the powerful last word in deciding conflicts of interest.

McKay gave Vogler an exclusive contract as the Senate's consultant on growth-management in the session just past. The job paid $175 an hour, earning Vogler tens of thousands of dollars in a sweetheart deal that gave him singular influence over the shape of any new growth-management laws.

McKay pushed through an Enterprise Zone designation for a prime waterfront portion of land known as the "Sandpile," benefiting Bradenton Riverfront Partners, which holds a 99-year lease on the city-owned land. Not only does Vogler represent Bradenton Riverfront Partners, but another McKay colleague stands to gain big as well. Prominent Sarasota attorney David Band and the Benderson Corp. made headlines involving McKay in Sarasota in 1999 and 2000. That's because Band and Benderson Corp. not only partnered with Allen in the Sandpile development but also orchestrated the bailout of a threatened 1999 foreclosure on a McKay project, the Sarasota-based, $9.65-million Pen West Office Park mortgage.

Conveniently, former state Sen. Pat Neal — in private life a powerhouse Bradenton developer — sits on the state's Ethics Commission. He is the appointee of ... guess who? That's right, the Florida Senate, and he is poised to rule on any ethics complaints that might come up. These new McKay-Vogler, McKay-Allen potential conflicts may be ripe for an ethics complaint. But with Pat Neal in place, any such complaints would have even less chance of success than a previous one by the late Bradenton environmentalist Gloria Rains. She filed an unsuccessful conflict-of-interest charge against McKay and then-Bradenton County Commissioner Stan Stephens over a land-development deal.

And here's another fact: McKay is poised, during the upcoming Florida Legislature 2002, to oversee the first major rewrite of growth management laws in two decades, a process that started in the 2001 session that ended May 4. The anticipated relaxing of rules would grease his way to profits on a number of development fronts in Bradenton. Arlene Sweeting, a schoolteacher and Sierra Club officer (who lost her bid to represent Bradenton in the Florida House in the November 2000 race) says, "They say they'll have more public involvement in the process (by amplifying local control). That's certainly going to help them as developers. That's going to pave the way. Unfortunately when you send it back to the local level, these people have so much more influence there. It's kind of scary."

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