Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Contributions Color State Contract Deal; Lawmakers Say Ties to Businessman Did Not Influence Decisions

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Contributions Color State Contract Deal; Lawmakers Say Ties to Businessman Did Not Influence Decisions

Article excerpt

Byline: MATT DIXON

Through 19 companies he controls, a Ponte Vedra Beach businessman who holds a controversial state printing contract has given nearly $370,000 in campaign contributions over the past decade, a Times-Union analysis has found.

More than 80 percent of Ken Underwood's contributions went to politicians who now hold office or to the Republican Party of Florida, which gives financial support to lawmakers. A bill being considered by state lawmakers would give Underwood the inside track on regaining the contract, but the bill's sponsor said that controversy surrounding the contract may make it difficult to pass this session.

Underwood said the contributions didn't play a role in his getting the contract.

"Absolutely not," he said. "I was the only bidder at the time. That's why I have the contract."

Underwood prints the state's driver safety handbooks free of charge and, in return, places ads inside for driving schools he owns.

A well-known figure in Florida's driver safety industry, Underwood has over the past 15 years incorporated more than 100 schools, most of which are now inactive. He said the reason he started so many schools was because the state used to handle advertising for the industry.

"That was really an effort to blow up the list," Underwood said. "The more companies you had on the list, the more business you could get."

The political contributions, almost exclusively to Republican candidates, have gone to some of the state's most powerful lawmakers, including: $16,000 to Gov. Charlie Crist; $9,000 to Attorney General Bill McCollum, now a gubernatorial candidate; $6,000 to Tom Lee, who was Senate president at the time Underwood got the printing contract; and $4,000 to Jeff Atwater, the current Senate president.

In addition, members of the three Senate committees the bill is scheduled to go before have received $22,000 from Underwood or his companies since 2006 - including $3,500 to J.D. Alexander and $2,000 to Joe Negron, who chair two of those committees.

The state limits individual political contributions to $500, but a person can give that maximum contribution from any company he or she owns. …

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