In Miami’s political scene, money doesn’t just talk. It screams — in English, Spanish and Creole, filling the airwaves, flashing on TV and computer screens, crowding email inboxes, text messages and snail mail.
The push to sway votes is expensive, and the true source of the dollars that pay for the ads can be a mystery. Whether it’s candidates or ballot measures, moneyed interests use political groups that can receive and spend unlimited, untraceable “dark money” to influence elections and pay for attack ads. Florida’s lax campaign finance laws allow donors to seed thousands into committees that can donate to one or more other committees.
The money that pays for the ads can be difficult to trace back to the original donor. Because state authorities do not aggressively police campaign finance reports, political committees can easily get away with concealing their donors while flouting election laws. But political groups don’t necessarily need to break campaign laws to hide the sources of their money. Money is allowed to be moved through a byzantine web of political committees that mask its origins.
▪ In Miami Beach, a person with no obvious political experience opened a committee for just two weeks before closing it. In that short time, the group funded ads opposing a local ballot measure, but the source of the money remains unknown because the group never disclosed its funders — which is required by law. The group has yet to face any reprimand.
▪ In Miami, opposing sides of a contentious ballot item both spent money from political groups funded by other political groups, with the original donors concealed behind layers of committees and more often lost in a shuffle of other donors and committees.
Fixes to Florida’s porous campaign finance laws have failed in the past. In 2017, bills in the Florida Senate and House were introduced to prohibit committees from being able to give to one another. Both died in the committees.
One group that pushed for campaign finance reform in 2017, Come Clean Florida, said the state’s laws allow “legal laundering of millions of dollars in special interest campaign contributions through political committees controlled by legislative leaders.”
The system is complicated and not user-friendly for the average voter who wants to know who’s buying political influence.
“It’s a kind of indirect, corrosive disenfranchisement,” said Anthony Alfieri, director of the Center for Ethics and Public Service at the University of Miami School of Law. “It’s not voter suppression, but it’s the encouragement of voter alienation and apathy.” The result, he said, is that the concealment erodes voters’ trust in the electoral system and turns people off from participating in government.
In early September, a 26-year-old Miami Beach resident opened a political committee called Preserve Miami Beach’s Future to urge voters to reject a proposal on the city’s November ballot.
Although the chairwoman, Sarah Klein, had no experience serving as the chair of a political committee in Florida, the committee quickly got to work. It sent mailers to Miami Beach residents warning that a proposed convention center hotel project would cause “mega-traffic” and urging voters to reject the lease of public land for the project. The mailers contained misleading claims, confusing voters.
After operating for just two weeks, however, the committee abruptly closed amid questions about its financial backers. Klein told the Miami Herald that she had decided to dissolve the committee “in an effort to maintain my privacy.” She did not respond to questions about whether she had started the committee on her own or had been recruited to serve as chairwoman.
BFF Compliance, a firm that helps candidates and committees with their election compliance paperwork, also refused to give a straight answer about its work for the committee. Although BFF partner and political consultant Ben Pollara had privately acknowledged setting up the committee, he initially told the Herald that he was not involved with the committee and did not know who was behind it. He later retracted that statement. Another BFF partner, Gloria Maggiolo, resigned as the committee’s treasurer on the same day the committee was disbanded.
Despite state laws requiring political committees to disclose their donors and how they spend their money, Preserve Miami Beach’s Future hasn’t disclosed its funders or its expenditures. The committee hasn’t filed a report with state election officials for the period in which it sent mailers to Miami Beach voters. It also failed to submit a final campaign treasurer’s report, which was due Oct. 5.
But so far, there appear to have been no consequences for flouting state election laws.
The Florida Division of Elections sent Preserve Miami Beach’s Future a letter on Oct. 8 warning that the committee faces fines of as much as $500 a day for every day its reports are late. But the fines are capped: They can’t exceed 25 percent of the committee’s total receipts or expenditures over the period covered by the report. And the Division of Elections hasn’t yet issued any fines because the fines are only assessed once a report has been filed, Sarah Revell, a Florida Department of State spokeswoman, said in an email.
If the committee is fined for a late report, it will likely be hard for state officials to enforce. Under Florida law, committee chairs and other officers are not personally liable for a committee’s late fines, Revell said.
While the Florida Division of Elections oversees fines for late filings, it doesn’t impose fines on committees for failing to file. The Division of Elections can refer missing reports to the Florida Elections Commission, which can impose fines of up to $1,000 for violations of state elections law and also has the ability to refer violations to the local state attorney’s office for criminal prosecution, agency clerk Donna Ann Malphurs said in an email.
After the Miami Herald inquired about the status of the committee’s reports, the Department of State sent Preserve Miami Beach’s Future a notice via certified mail last week warning that it plans to refer the committee to the Elections Commission if it does not file a report within seven days of receiving the letter. The letter was delivered on Feb. 15 and as of Wednesday morning, the committee still had not filed a report.
Klein and Pollara did not respond to questions about why Preserve Miami Beach’s Future hasn’t filed its campaign finance reports.
In years past, other committees that have sent out campaign fliers have opened and quickly closed without disclosing any contributions — including during a 2016 campaign for a convention center hotel in the Beach and in a nasty Florida State House race in the fall. In both cases, state records show no action has been taken against the committees.
Austin Graham, a lawyer with the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center’s State and Local Reform Program, said that he has seen examples in other states of political committees concealing their financial backers, especially committees involved in ballot initiatives.
“With ballot initiatives where the economic stakes are pretty high you will see corporate interests trying to get involved in this stuff but trying to shield their involvement through pass-through entities,” Graham said.
The enforcement of campaign finance violations varies from state to state. Graham said that in addition to having strong campaign finance laws, it’s important for states to adequately fund their enforcement agencies.
“If the agency is understaffed and doesn’t have a lot of money in their budget, their ability to enforce the law is going to be limited,” he said.
Enforcement agencies have found success in some states by referring campaign finance violations to prosecutors.
In Washington, for example, a county court judge fined the Grocery Manufacturers Association $18 million in 2016 for violating campaign finance laws by concealing the names of companies that had contributed to an effort to defeat a food labeling initiative. The initiative would have required labels on food and drinks that contain genetically modified organisms.
An appeals court later lowered the fine to $6 million, but that would still be the largest campaign finance penalty in U.S. history, according to the Capital Press.
Enforcing fines for campaign finance violations isn’t always easy, however, especially if the fine is levied against a political committee.
“A lot of times committees spend all of their money and by the time enforcement proceedings are winding down the committee either is defunct or basically has no money left,” Graham said.
Layers of committees
In Florida, money can be legally concealed by steering it through layers of political committees.
Last year, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez tried to convince voters to make him the most powerful individual in the city’s government. Political committees controlled by Democratic and Republican operatives pumped donations into the campaign to make Suarez, a Republican who holds a nonpartisan position, a “strong mayor.”
Suarez and affiliated political groups raised about $3 million. Opponents spent $182,000. Despite the fat campaign chest on the side of the strong mayor, voters roundly rejected the idea.
Progressives for Change, a committee created in the waning days of the campaign, sent mailers touting the strong-mayor proposal. Democratic political consultant Christian Ulvert is listed as chairman of the committee, which received one donation of $50,000 before the vote, on Oct. 19. That sum came from Mark PC, a committee controlled by Tallahassee elections lawyer Mark Herron who represented Democrats.
On Oct. 9, Herron’s group received $25,000 from a Suarez committee, Miami’s Future. Mark PC collected another $65,000 from two other entities that same day, including $30,000 from a South Florida-based committee Democratic Services Network — a group that received hundreds of of thousands throughout the election season from an array of political committees across the state.
So whose money paid for the mailers?
Herron did not respond to a request for comment. Ulvert declined to comment on Herron’s contribution.
“I’m in the process of closing the committee,” he said.
Suarez pointed to publicly available campaign records that show which entities gave and who received while saying the spending in support of his strong-mayor push was transparent.
“My recollection is that there was a progressive group that was advocating for strong mayor, and this other political committee probably acts as a sort of holding committee for the other committee,” he told the Herald.
Money from GOP sources also supported the strong-mayor effort. The Responsible Leadership Committee, a statewide Republican-affiliated committee that has received donations from several others, gave $25,000 directly to one of the pro-strong-mayor groups. That money could not be traced back to the original donor either.
Dollars flowed similarly on the opposition side, although far fewer. Commissioner Joe Carollo used a political communications group he controls called Miami First to fund ads attacking the proposal. Miami First received thousands in contributions from other committees, some linked to other conservative groups locally and across Florida. One local committee is controlled by Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, a Carollo ally and a vocal critic of the strong-mayor plan.
In one instance, two Tallahassee-based committees served as conduits for anti-strong-mayor money that ended up in Carollo’s organization. But in this case, the donor identified himself.
On Oct. 26, Citizens for Principled Leadership gave Carollo’s group $10,000. Days before, the Principled Leadership committee had received $10,200 from Conservatives for Truth. On Oct. 10, Conservatives for Truth had received $15,886 from Stephen Kneapler, a confidant of former Mayor Tomás Regalado and the former owner of Monty’s Raw Bar.
Earlier this month, Kneapler confirmed to the Herald that he gave the money to Conservatives for Truth to bankroll ads attacking Suarez’s proposal, though he said he couldn’t recall to whom he gave the check. He said he didn’t know where the money ended up and didn’t care, so long as it served its purpose.
“I was so against the concept and the person behind the concept,” he said, adding that he would double his contribution if Suarez ever tried again.
Similarly, Carollo said he did not know why multiple political groups gave him thousands. Besides the Principled Leadership group, Carollo also received $25,000 from nonprofit Miami-Dade Partnership for Prosperity, Inc., a 501(c)(4) entity that is allowed to influence public policy and conceal its donors.
“I don’t know who they are,” he said.
Carollo described fundraising through political committees as a necessary evil — an avenue for wealthy private interests to have an outsized influence on public policy, but essential for any campaign to have a realistic chance of influencing voters, either in candidate elections or on ballot questions.
“If you don’t have a political committee, you can’t compete when you run for office,” he said.
Carollo said he’d rather see committees eliminated. The mayor said he supports reform so long as it does not freeze out potential candidates who are not wealthy and favor self-funded candidates.
“I’m completely in favor of campaign finance reform,” the mayor said, “as long as it doesn’t create inequities. There should be a playing field that’s equal and level and fair.”
Sometimes, even mystery groups hiding behind layers of committees are difficult to track down. In North Miami Beach, a Fort Lauderdale-based committee raised more than $250,000 to put out a dozen attack mailers against various leading candidates for city council in the 2018 election. The committee was entirely funded by a Tampa-based committee that was entirely funded by a group called “Stand Up For Justice” that lists a Tallahassee P.O. box, no agent name, and does not appear in state committee registries. It shares a name with a D.C.-based nonprofit. It’s unclear if the two groups are related.
No one has come forward to claim responsibility for the fliers.
Ronald Meyer, an elections lawyer whose Tallahassee firm represented one of Suarez’s strong-mayor committees, said political committees are allowed to operate in a way that obscures the answers to two simple questions that are central to transparency in politics.
“I think it clearly undermines what I consider to be the overarching objective of campaign finance laws,” he said, “which is who gave it, and who got it?”