Senator May Have Let State Pay Campaign Staff

Mary Ellen Klas, Miami Herald, April 11, 2006

TALLAHASSEE—State Sen. Gary Siplin, the flamboyant former bond lawyer who owes $187,100 to Miami-Dade County for a now-defunct hat shop, was charged Monday with grand theft for requiring his state staff to do campaign work on the state dime.

Siplin, 51, a Democrat and two-term state senator from Orlando, was known in Miami for his flashy fedoras and his close ties to Miami-Dade politicos before he moved back to his hometown and was elected to the Legislature in 2000.

Now, after an eight-month investigation, Orlando State Attorney Lawson Lamar has charged Siplin with one felony and one misdemeanor count for allegedly forcing his former chief of staff to work on his 2004 re-election campaign while she was still on the state payroll—a violation of law.

“This case centers on a person in a position of trust utilizing approximately three months of labor, funded with taxpayer dollars, for his personal political campaign—not for the job a state employee was being paid to do,” said Lamar, the top prosecutor for Orange and Osceola counties. “That amounts to grand larceny from the people of Florida.”

Siplin turned himself in to the Polk County Sheriff’s office late Monday and posted the $500 bail. Lamar obtained documents from the Florida Senate that showed Siplin requested a leave of absence for his former aide, Naomi Cooper, to work on his campaign for two months. After the leave expired, Lamar said, Siplin forced her to continue to work on the campaign and forced two other members of his Senate staff “to do campaign work while on the public payroll.”

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Siplin moved to Miami in 1982 when he was hired as an assistant county attorney. He became the first black president of the Dade County Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Section in 1989 and was active in promoting black professionals.

His troubles in Miami began in 1987, when Siplin borrowed $88,000 from a Miami-Dade County program to encourage the creation of minority businesses. He used the money to start a hat shop in Coconut Grove, called Hats in the Belfry, which later failed.

He made sporadic payments on the loan and, in 1999, asked county officials to forgive the loan. They refused, and the principal and interest on the debt now totals $187,100.75.

Despite the outstanding debt, Siplin handled several bond deals for the county, collecting nearly $84,000 in fees from 1993 to 1998, until the county stopped doing business with him.

Siplin wouldn’t respond on the record to questions from The Miami Herald when asked about the anticipated allegations last week. He said his only comment would be: “I love you.”

He used the same response three dozen times when an Orlando television crew confronted him about the state attorney investigation last year.

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