A big chunk of the Gaetz money has flowed to an electioneering group, Liberty Foundation of Florida, which has run ads touting Lee as a pro-family Republican.
“It’s destructive to the political process,” said Lee’s Republican opponent, Rep. Rachel Burgin, R-Riverview. “They’re collecting all this money from Republican donors, and they’re using it against a conservative Republican to defeat her.”
While dozens of citizens wrote small-dollar checks to Latvala’s fund, much of the money has come in bursts of $5,000 and $10,000 from groups with a stake in legislation, such as racetracks, unions, insurers, hospitals and doctors — in some cases, special interests on opposite sides of the same issue.
“Money has never influenced what I’ve done in the Senate, and it’s not going to start now,” says Latvala, who was re-elected in 2010 after previously serving for eight years.
A statewide firefighters’ PAC gave $32,000 to Latvala’s fund, and the AFL-CIO gave $25,000. So did Florida Crystals, a sugar grower, and Automated HealthCare Solutions. Latvala said donors support him because his Senate would be “deliberate, open and transparent to everybody.”
Latvala recently transferred $100,000 from his fund to the Committee to Protect Florida, an electioneering group that sent leaflets to GOP voters criticizing state Senate candidate Jeff Brandes’ voting record on insurance issues. Latvala supports Jim Frishe, Brandes’ rival in the Aug. 14 Republican primary.
By law, any legislator who solicits money for a fund must register with the state, and every fund must have a website and post donations within five days. That level of disclosure is stronger than for political parties and other political committees, like PACs, which usually report totals every three months.
Lobbyists routinely write checks of $2,500 or $5,000 to the lawmakers’ funds, but they don’t necessarily like it.
“The proliferation of legislator-controlled (funds) has made political fundraising a game limited to the really big companies and associations,” says lobbyist Bob Levy of Miami.
Democrats, including Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston, proposed eliminating CCEs in 2006. Rich, who plans to run for governor in 2014, now has her own fund, Citizens for a Progressive Florida, which has raised $93,000.
That includes $20,000 from Akerman Senterfitt, a law firm that lobbies the Legislature; $20,000 from Southern Wine & Spirits, a Miramar liquor distributor; and $10,000 from South Florida gambling interests.
“They’re popping up like mushrooms,” attorney Herron says.
Herald/Times staff writer Brittany Alana Davis contributed to this report.