Marc Caputo

Marc Caputo: Scott campaign flunks crime-watch test

Gov. Rick Scott’s campaign last week provided a political corollary to Honoré de Balzac’s saying that “behind every great fortune there is a crime.”

Behind every great donor there is a potential crime.

It’s especially true in scammer-rich Florida.

Had Scott’s campaign-finance team realized this, someone might have vetted (or Googled) James Batmasian. He pleaded guilty in 2008 to failing to collect and pay $253,000 in federal withholding taxes regarding his Boca Raton investment company’s employees. Batmasian spent eight months in prison, paid a $30,000 fine and had his law license suspended in Florida.

Perfect guy to headline a $10,000-per-donor fundraiser, right?

The Florida Democratic Party thought so.

“Birds of a feather . . . Rick Scott to fundraise with ex-felon tax cheat,” Joshua Karp, the Democrats’ spokesman wrote in a Thursday morning email blast that conflated Batmasian’s past — as first reported by Mother Jones online — and the 1997 record $1.7 billion Medicare-fraud fine paid by Scott’s former hospital company.

Behind each opponent’s misstep is an opportunity.

Scott quickly pulled the plug on the fundraiser and sought to focus attention on Democratic opponent Charlie Crist’s record as governor, when unemployment and budget shortfalls reached record highs.

“This event has been canceled,” Scott’s campaign spokesman, Greg Blair, said in an email. “All the name calling and mudslinging in the world can’t hide Charlie Crist’s record of failure or the fact that he is too scared to debate his primary opponent.”

Karp got in a final email dig regarding Scott’s cancellation: “If you ask him why, he’ll probably just plead the Fifth.”

Indeed, this is Scott’s fourth fundraising woe, and the governor won’t directly answer questions about any of them:

• The Gator Hunt Gaffe: In September, Scott canceled a $25,000-per-donor “private gator hunt” fundraiser after questions arose about the classiness of the event (alligators are a de facto Florida symbol) and the legality of it (gators are a protected species, and hunting permits are limited and supposed to be awarded by lottery).

• The Execution Delay Debacle: Days later, word got out that Scott delayed the execution of convicted Miami murderer Marshall Lee Gore so that Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi could raise funds for her reelection. Scott, who then scheduled a Broward fundraiser for himself on that day, said he didn’t know the reason Bondi’s office requested the delay.

• The Mike Fernandez Fiasco: The Coral Gables billionaire and million-dollar donor to Scott was the campaign’s top finance chairman, but he quit amid a personality dispute in March. Along the way, some of his emails to the campaign leaked out in which he expressed displeasure with the reelection effort’s direction and with the staffers, who were allegedly overheard by a Fernandez business partner joking around in mock Mexican accents on the way to a Chipotle in Miami. The campaign denied the claims.

Fundraising snags are inevitable. Campaigns in Florida need to raise mega-millions in great part to fund 30-second TV ads. More money, more problems.

Cash was key to the improbable 2010 win of Scott, then an unknown multimillionaire who dropped about $75.1 million of his own money in the primary and general elections.

This time, Scott is so far relying on private donors, placing $12 million in ads since mid-March at a pace of $1 million a week.

Scott wants to spend $100 million. Democrat Charlie Crist, who wants at least $50 million, can’t afford to answer Scott’s ad barrage, yet. He will soon. He has to. One poll indicates Crist lost six percentage points in a month and Scott gained one.

Now they might be tied.

In May, Crist’s political committee raised $1.6 million to Scott’s $36,000. But Scott is raising more money through the state GOP and his official campaign account. It’s therefore likely Scott is still raising much more than Crist.

Crist, a former governor, knows how the game is played.

In 2010, when he ran for U.S. Senate, the special interests of Tallahassee funded the then-governor’s campaign. But, after he left the GOP and was a lame duck following the spring lawmaking session, the money dried up and he went on to lose.

Crist had his share of uncomfortable questions and donors. Three prior contributors and his handpicked Republican Party of Florida chairman were convicted in separate schemes.

The cases still nag at Crist today, especially that of Fort Lauderdale’s convicted Ponzi schemer Scott Rothstein, who claimed recently in open court that the former governor essentially sold judgeships — which Crist denies.

Behind every great donor there is a potential crime.

And, sometimes, politicians pay a price for it.