Future House speaker’s big donors fund lavish political operation

State Rep. Chris Dorworth is a study in political contradictions.

His personal finances are a shambles, but his ability to raise and spend political money in the capital is nearly unmatched.

He has an MBA from Duke University, yet is racked by business failure: He lists a net worth of negative $56,290 on his current financial disclosure form, making him, on paper, among the poorest members of the Florida Legislature.

His own house is in foreclosure, but he’s poised to become speaker of the Florida House in two years.

Dorworth uses his power base in the Capitol and his skill at raising special interest money to sustain a nearly $1 million personal political fund called Citizens for an Enterprising Democracy.

Super-sized campaign contributions allow Dorworth to employ a travel aide, campaign strategist, fund-raising consultant and media adviser.

He pays for airplane trips and catered meals, using unrestricted political donations from an array of interests that covet his support, from citrus growers to healthcare insurers to law firms to Internet cafes. In July, Disney Worldwide Services stroked an $80,000 check to Dorworth.

The Lake Mary lawmaker says it’s central to his mission to support fellow Republicans, and that he tries to avoid the appearance of subsidizing his lifestyle with what he calls “my” money.

“I’m not a man of unlimited means. You do your best to balance them both,” Dorworth says. “People want to know that the money they’re giving is being used to advance the overall House Republican caucus.”

When Dorworth flew to San Francisco last year — to raise money, he says — and then to Taiwan for a goodwill mission with other legislators, the fund paid for it. (The fund’s website is www.cedcce.com. A second lawmaker, Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, also raises money for it.)

The fund has paid for phones, office supplies and personalized Dorworth polo shirts. It racked up $3,300 in bills in a three-month period at 101 Restaurant & Lounge, a Tallahassee watering hole where Dorworth is a presence during legislative sessions.

Dorworth also reimbursed himself nearly $32,000 in out-of-pocket expenses from the fund at a time when his personal net worth was plummeting. Most expenses were in 2009 and 2010 when he was running for speaker, and he said he has never personally benefited from the fund.

“It is a dutiful and diligent exercise,” Dorworth says. “I am ever mindful of the watchful eye of the people and the press.”

Critics say Dorworth is a prime example of why the Legislature is unpopular and viewed as a tool of moneyed interests.

“Rep. Dorworth is feeding at the trough of a legislatively created monster that allows corporations and special interests to give unlimited contributions,” said Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida. “These ‘legal’ contributions make Main Street voters’ contributions, limited strictly to no more than $500, look like a speck of sand.”

Dorworth, 36, is a real estate investor and business consultant who faced major financial losses on a couple of big projects. The father of two is in the midst of a contentious divorce.

He used the student body presidency at the University of Florida as a launching pad to elective office. In his third term in the House, he easily defeated two Republican challengers in the Aug. 14 primary and faces Democrat Mike Clelland, a lawyer and former firefighter, in November.

If Dorworth wins reelection, he will become more powerful in the state House. He’ll be next in line when Rep. Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel becomes speaker in November, and will control candidate recruiting and fundraising for House races for 2014.

Like dozens of legislators, he is taking advantage of a loophole in campaign finance law by controlling a political fund, known as a committee of continuous existence or CCE, that’s exempt from the $500 contribution limit that applies to candidates.

Dorworth’s political fund has few restrictions on how money can be spent as long as it advances the committee’s broadly worded objective: “to promote effective leadership to maintain a strong and enterprising democracy.”

“How and where I choose to spend my money is not something I necessarily want aired,” he says.

By contrast, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who controls a fund like Dorworth’s, allowed his accountant, Nancy Watkins, to show a reporter receipts for his expenses. Watkins said she insists that everything be documented, down to a $1.50 receipt for a Miami parking lot.

“Every dollar that goes in and out of this committee goes through here,” Watkins said, sitting in her Tampa office.

In August alone, Dorworth’s fund received $88,000 in contributions, including $20,000 each from Genting, the New York firm seeking to expand casino gambling in Florida, and FOCUS, a committee representing ophthalmologists, a group perennially involved in legislative battles with optometrists involving scope-of-practice issues.

Dorworth says consultants help ensure that contributions to the fund keep flowing.

“The specific ‘ask’ is probably done by me,” Dorworth says. “But the follow-up, I don’t have time for all that stuff.”

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.