Politics

Ex-Florida legislator who didn’t pay taxes uses political cash for meals, travel

Erik Fresen arrives at federal court to plead guilty to not filing taxes

The former Miami lawmaker didn’t file tax returns during his eight years in office.
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The former Miami lawmaker didn’t file tax returns during his eight years in office.

Last September, just two days after the Internal Revenue Service placed a $202,358 lien against him, former Florida legislator Erik Fresen billed his political committee for $1,069 for meals at three South Florida eateries and a retreat to the Playa Largo hotel in the Florida Keys.

And about three months later, on the day the IRS prepared a second, $130,885 lien, Fresen’s committee spent another $688 in donors’ cash for what he described as political meetings at six Miami area restaurants.

Fresen, a once-powerful Republican state representative from Miami, dropped out of the public eye after he pleaded guilty in April 2017 to a misdemeanor charge of failing to file a single year’s returns. The one-time House education budget chief also admitted that he hadn’t reported the income from his personal consulting business to the federal government during any of his eight years in the Florida House. He canceled a 2020 state Senate run.

At the time, his defense lawyer, former Miami U.S. Attorney Marcos Jimenez, told a judge: “This has ended his public service career.”

The former lawmaker was sentenced to four 15-day stints in jail, a sentence designed to allow him to keep earning money so he could pay his debts. He also took out a personal loan for the remainder of a $214,000 tax debt from 2007 through 2013.

But Fresen, who had once had vied to become Florida House Speaker, held on to another source of funds: a six-figure account for a political committee he’d formed years earlier to help finance his ambitions.

And since then, even with the IRS nipping at his heels to resolve an additional $300,000 in unpaid taxes and penalties from 2014 through 2017, Fresen has continued to spend political money from that fund on everything from campaign donations to meals and airfare, charged on a personal credit card.

When he pleaded guilty to the single count of failing to pay his taxes, Fresen was still chairman of the Floridians for a Strong 67 political committee, and he controlled $168,000 in cash stashed away in the committee’s coffers. The money — the remains of a nearly $500,000 pot raised during a three-year period ending in October 2016 — was donated by an array of corporate donors, casino interests, education-oriented political committees and individual contributors, such as former Miami Heat star Alonzo Mourning.

Since May of 2017 — a month after he stunned supporters by publicly acknowledging he’d failed to pay his taxes — Fresen’s committee has reported spending about $69,000. A good chunk of it, $37,000, was donated to the campaigns of other politicians and about $15,000 went for services such as accounting, website hosting and storage. But another $17,000 in expenses footed by the committee included meals, airfare, hotels and Uber rides that Fresen says were initially purchased on his own Discover card.

Fresen, who would not agree to a phone interview, explained in emails that he uses a personal credit card to pay for political meetings at restaurants and for trips taken on committee business. He said he’s meeting with “possible donors, raising money” and pondering his prospects.

“Public service is still and will always be in my heart,” Fresen explained in an email. “That is why I am meeting with individuals in order to assess what, if any, political future there may be.”

Juan-Carlos Planas, an attorney and former state representative listed as the registered agent for Floridians for a Strong 67, said Fresen’s use of his political committee money is appropriate and legal.

“Everything has been reported and everything has been disclosed properly,” said Planas.

But that may not be enough to make sure the money is being used for its designated purpose, according to Ben Wilcox, research director of the nonpartisan watchdog organization Integrity Florida. He said the arrangement “is really blurring the lines that you’re supposed to set up between your personal spending and political spending.”

“He can say he’s taking a trip to meet with a donor and paying for that meal, but there’s no real way to confirm that’s how the expenses are actually being used,” Wilcox said.

State election records confirm that the committee has reported paying more than $17,000 to Discover since May of 2017. Most that amount — $13,000 — was spent during the last 11 months in South Florida.

The expenses range from tiny $8 Uber rides to two $504.85 bills from the Brazilian Court Hotel in Palm Beach in November of 2017 and August of 2018. In the last bill disclosed to the state, on June 1, Fresen reported spending $306 on gasoline, ride shares, Starbucks and meals at a Ruby Tuesday and Gringo’s Oyster Bar in Coral Gables.

The committee did not report any credit card expenses after the Miami Herald first inquired on June 11 about the payments to Discover.

Florida law does allow political committees to open credit card accounts as long as its users are registered with the state. Committees are also allowed to reimburse people for expenses. In Fresen’s case, the former lawmaker says he uses his personal credit card to pay for what he considers to be committee expenses, and then has the committee cut a check directly to Discover for the bills.

Fresen told the Miami Herald that he adopted the method on the advice of his treasurer, Jose Riesco, who wrote in an email Monday that Fresen was paying committee expenses with his personal credit card before the treasurer came on board.

“Rather than pay the card without explanation and in order to be transparent, we correctly recorded the payment as an expenditure, and listed the detail of the expenses separately ... as required,” Riesco said.

The committee, which has posted its expenses through the end of June, still had about $113,000 in cash at the time. The bulk of its spending in June came in the form of two contributions to political committees: $10,000 to a committee supporting Miami Commissioner Keon Hardemon’s County Commission campaign and $3,000 to a committee supporting Miami Commissioner Ken Russell, both Democrats.

Reached Friday, Russell said the check from Fresen’s committee was unsolicited. He said he chose not to cash it because he objects to “decreasing taxpayer funding of traditional public schools” that he said occurred during Fresen’s time as the state House education committee budget chief.

Attempts to reach Fresen’s donors were unsuccessful. The last one to give money to Floridians for a Strong 67, back in 2016, was a limited liability company with ties to charter school operator Academica, which is owned by Fresen’s brother-in-law. School Development HC Finance gave two checks worth $12,500 in September and October of that year.

Fresen’s continued political committee spending comes amid increased awareness of so-called “zombie campaigns,” in which former lawmakers and candidates continue to wine and dine on leftover campaign cash. In May, the Federal Elections Commission sent letters to dozens of federal campaigns after the Tampa Bay Times and St Petersburg TV station 10 WSTP ran an expose detailing how candidates appeared to abuse federal laws by spending election money on seemingly personal expenses years after they left office.

Fresen would not answer questions about the details of his political meetings, but insisted Monday when pressed for more detail that “all expenses are properly accounted for with full transparency.”

In the meantime, Fresen still owes as much as $332,000 to the Internal Revenue Service, although it’s not clear how much remains outstanding following the liens placed against Fresen and his wife by the federal government.

An IRS spokesman would not discuss the debt. Nor would Fresen.

“I have apologized for my past issues regarding the IRS,” he wrote, “but they have never had anything to do with my campaigns and/or political committee(s).”

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