Gaylord Palms paid Guetzloe during fight over center

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Doug Guetzloe's anti-tax crusaders mobilized last year to convince Osceola County taxpayers that a county convention center was a bad deal while his consulting firm was being paid more than $87,000 by the Gaylord Palms Resort, which was pushing its own plan for a competing facility.

Even Guetzloe's top Ax the Tax lieutenant in Osceola -- who wrote at the time that he supported the Gaylord plan because "it made sense and saved cents" for taxpayers -- said Wednesday that he did not know Guetzloe's company was being paid by the resort.

The lieutenant, Steve Burke, said his support for Gaylord was based on the public's best interest and had nothing to do with Guetzloe's business connection with Gaylord. He said knowing now that Guetzloe was being paid by the resort didn't change that view.

"That's between Doug Guetzloe and Gaylord Palms," Burke said. "More power to him."

Although they suggest no wrongdoing, the Gaylord Palms checks to Guetzloe's Advantage Consultants are the latest example of how the political firebrand's public causes often intersect with his private business interests. The checks have been made public by a state attorney's investigation into Guetzloe's alleged election misconduct in a Winter Park mayoral election.

The financial records have opened a window into Guetzloe's work for some of Central Florida's most prominent businesses and public agencies at the same time that he has cast himself as a voice of the common people.

The records show:

Advantage Consultants received $470,000 from a prestigious Orlando law firm for unknown activities at a time when Guetzloe was embroiled in controversies in two cities where the firm was pushing major development projects.

The Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority, a longtime target of Ax the Tax ire, steered more than $107,000 since mid-2004 in toll money to Advantage Consultants for public-opinion research.

The records also show that Apopka paid Guetzloe $6,000 in January for a public-opinion survey.

Cities paid for surveys

Guetzloe also acknowledges, and city officials confirm, that his company was paid $8,500 in 1995 by Maitland for similar surveys and secured $56,500 for Altamonte Springs' resident surveys in 1993, 1996 and 1999.

Guetzloe, when asked late Tuesday whether it was ironic that he has made money off the same taxpayers he has built a reputation on protecting, said, "I don't think so."

"It's an interesting point," Guetzloe said. He said he wears many hats, including those of a political consultant, radio commentator and activist leader.

"If my opinions changed in some ways because of it [the public contracts], then I would think there's some credibility to those allegations."

Guetzloe, however, says he has never wavered on his political stances.

On Wednesday, he referred all calls to his lawyer.

Guetzloe is being prosecuted by Orange-Osceola State Attorney Lawson Lamar for his work on an anonymous flier that attacked a Winter Park mayoral candidate in March.

Former Osceola County Commissioner Atlee Mercer, who was involved in the convention-center dispute, called Guetzloe a "hired gun."

Osceola was in the middle of its decadelong quest to build its own convention center last summer. The county had started collecting a sixth cent on its bed tax in 2004 -- a tax increase that Ax the Tax supported -- and was wrestling with two competing proposals from Gaylord Entertainment and FaulknerUSA.

Gaylord sought county aid

Gaylord already had meeting space in its hotel, and a new convention center elsewhere would cut into that business. It was pushing for more than $100 million in county money to expand its facility.

But the effort was shelved again, leaving Gaylord without an expansion but also without competition from a nearby county center.

"Any time someone got a leg up, all their competitors found a way to kill the deal," Mercer said of the county's failed efforts.

Gaylord Palms officials confirmed Wednesday that they had hired Guetzloe's company in 2005 for political consulting. But that wasn't public knowledge at the time.

Burke, Ax the Tax's Osceola chairman and a former Kissimmee city commissioner, said he didn't know of the arrangement when he wrote an opinion piece that ran in the Orlando Sentinel on July 17, 2005. He cast his work as totally independent and not connected to either side of the competition.

"Neither I nor Ax the Tax has any ties to either group, unlike some," Burke wrote.

The group sent out mailers pushing the Gaylord plan. Proponents of the competing side complained of being peppered with calls from telemarketers on behalf of Ax the Tax.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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