Regulator who was overruled fires whistle-blower suit

Aug 8, 2008

St. Petersburg Times--August 7, 2008

TALLAHASSEE — For the second time in a month, Holly Benson, a former state lawmaker and key member of Gov. Charlie Crist’s administration, faces accusations of political maneuvering in agencies she oversees.

A whistle-blower lawsuit filed Wednesday in circuit court in Tallahassee alleges Benson intervened in a regulatory decision about whether special Bud Light beer bottles touting Hooters restaurants broke state liquor law.

The complaint alleges Benson, while running the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, asked her staff to reconsider a crackdown on beverage distributor Lewis Bear Co. after the company’s chief, David Bear, asked her to intervene. Bear is a political contributor and longtime family friend of Benson’s.

Now secretary of the Agency of Health Care Administration, Benson recently drew criticism for firing an inspector general critical of the privatization of Medicaid, a top priority of Benson while in the Legislature.

Benson did not return calls for comment but released a statement noting three other government investigations into the beer bottle issue turned up nothing.

"These allegations have been thoroughly investigated. … Each independent investigation found the allegations unsubstantiated. I fully expect this fourth attempt will end with the same result," she said. Steve Hougland filed the lawsuit against the Department of Business and Professional Regulation. He had been the director of its Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco. Hougland said shortly after he alerted the agency’s inspector general to "violations of law, mismanagement and unethical behavior," the agency’s second in command Chuck Drago (now the department secretary) suspended Hougland’s decisionmaking authority, the lawsuit says. Hougland resigned effective Oct. 4 to avoid further retaliation, he said in the suit.

Hougland had decided the beer labels violated a Florida law that bars financial aid to a beverage vendor by a liquor manufacturer or distributor. He ordered the bottles yanked.