Parties are accountable to executive committees, elected officials and auditing reviews, while political committees can spring up and be accountable to no one, he said.
Gaetz, who has also made cleaning up the state’s ethics and elections laws a top priority, believes the existing system includes significant accountability. “Not a penny goes out for any kind of Senate campaign- related expense that I don’t’ agree to and not a penny is raised that is not raised under my watch,” he said.
But for Cox and ethics advocates (who have called for 24-hour disclosure laws for all campaign finances), the notion that Gaetz can control his share of the budget but not disclose his expenditures is part of the problem.
The Republican Party of Florida “is a very convenient place to park money,” Cox said. “Rather than having to document the type of expenses that are prohibited from the last finance reform — meals and gifts and trips — now it can be washed through the party umbrella.’’
When parties report their expenditures they mingle their spending for various political campaigns into one, making it impossible to determine who gave money to the House, Senate or governor. In the last two months of 2012, for example, the RPOF paid $75,606 to American Express for expenses by undisclosed individuals.
Former House Speaker John Thrasher, who became head of the RPOF when Greer was forced to resign, said he ended the lavish expenditures members enjoyed and cut up the credit cards. But the party still foots the bill for many lawmaker meals without a clear line of disclosure.
Last week, the Herald/Times found six senators at a Tallahassee restaurant meeting with a lobbyist and the head of the Florida Ophthalmology Association. Rather than pay for the meal, the group charged it to the Republican Party, and Senate Republican Leader Lizbeth Benacquisto described it as a “thank you dinner” because the ophthalmologists raised money for them.
Republicans are not the only ones resisting full disclosure of party spending for lawmakers. Some Democrats, who raise considerably less than their rivals, worry that if they reveal how much a large donor has given to a House or Senate account, Republicans will intimidate their donors.
Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Miami Shores, who was elected the first woman Senate president in 1990, said she believes the current system of CCEs works to the advantage of challengers to RPOF leadership because it allows them to track who gives what to whom.
She said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, used his CCE last year to pour money into her rival’s campaign and she keeps a list of donors “in case I need it.”
If they eliminate CCEs and don’t require parties to link the contributions to the spending, “money will get washed through the party,’’ Margolis said. The party will “report the expenditure, but you just won’t know exactly who it is.”