State Politics

Will legislators lift the veil on ‘dark money’ in Florida politics?

On the eve of the annual legislative session and the night before the legislators’ 60-day fundraising ban begins, Associated Industries of Florida hosts an annual cocktail party on the grounds of its Tallahassee headquarters. This one was from 2015.
On the eve of the annual legislative session and the night before the legislators’ 60-day fundraising ban begins, Associated Industries of Florida hosts an annual cocktail party on the grounds of its Tallahassee headquarters. This one was from 2015. Tampa Bay Times

The ritual is so routine it hardly draws attention but, in the ramp-up to the annual legislative session, Florida’s most politically powerful corporations seed hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign cash into the political committees of legislators.

Sometimes legislators hold fundraisers at swanky resorts or sporting events. Other times, they corner lobbyists over cocktails in a Tallahassee bar, usually during the busy committee weeks leading up to the regular session before the self-imposed fundraising ban takes effect at the start of the 60-day session.

But getting all the details on who got what is impossible. Florida law allows groups that accept contributions from corporations to legally distribute money to other political committees, including those controlled by legislators, without reporting the original source of the cash. The practice of shielding political spending from public view has fueled the “dark money” trend in politics that has allowed groups to launch political attacks in state and local campaigns without fear of being traced.

This year, two of the state’s biggest donors — Florida Power & Light and U.S. Sugar — contributed more than $2 million in the first two months, according to a Herald/Times review of Division of Elections records. FPL is attempting to win support for two bills to overturn unfavorable court rulings, and U.S. Sugar is working to oppose Senate President Joe Negron’s plan to buy farm land for a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee.

So how much of FPL’s $1.5 million went to the eight members of the Senate committee that unanimously supported FPL’s bills last week? Senate Energy Committee chair Frank Artiles reported travel, drinks and food from FPL only after the Herald/Times disclosed it, but did the Miami Republican or other legislators on the committee receive any contributions from the company?

There is no way to know. Although committees must report all contributions and are barred from coordinating with donors about how to spend the money, the lack of transparency has prompted two legislators to propose bills to reform the system.

“Everything we do is a complete joke,” said Rep. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, who was elected last year after a divisive and close primary contest. “All the reporting is a waste of time if we have no transparency.”

Gruters and Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Melbourne, have proposed legislation that would ban the practice of committees transferring funds to other committees, allowing the public to better see who gives and who gets millions in political contributions.

Under the proposals, HB 1057 and SB 1178, political committees could not transfer money to another political committee to shield the source. The only entities that would be allowed to accept unlimited amounts of cash to transfer to other committees would be the political parties and the House and Senate leadership funds, which are controlled by the House speaker and Senate president.

“Everything stays within a silo, and it has to be disclosed within that silo,” Gruters said. “It won’t solve all the problems, but it is a good start.”

Of the $1.5 million FPL has contributed to political committees this year, $601,500 went to four political committees operated by Associated Industries of Florida, a business lobbying group and $500,000 went to five committees operated by the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

According to data on the Florida Division of Elections website, FPL divided its contributions to AIF, but there is no way to tell which legislators received any of the cash — unless in the case of one committee, there is a single donor. Each of three committees was given $200,000 — Floridians for a Stronger Democracy, the Florida Prosperity Fund and Floridians United for Our Children’s Future. Another $1,500 was sent to the AIF PAC.

FPL was the only contributor to AIF’s Floridians for a Stronger Democracy so far this year, so its contributions to lawmakers can be tracked.

The committee distributed $145,010 in checks, including $25,000 to the political committee of Sen. Jack Latvala, the Clearwater Republican who heads the Senate budget committee; $20,000 to Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, $10,000 to Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, $10,000 to Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, $10,000 to Sen. Dana Young, R-Tampa, and $10,000 to Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers. Young is a member of the Senate committee that voted for FPL’s bills last week, and Brodeur is sponsoring the House bill to allow FPL to pass along to customers some costs of its investments in out-of-state natural gas fracking.

FPL, which said it would not comment on its campaign contributions, wrote its largest checks in 2017 to Florida’s two unannounced but widely speculated candidates for higher office: Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam, who received $250,000, and Gov. Rick Scott, who got a check for $100,000.

The next largest donor to the political committees of AIF and the Florida Chamber so far this year is U.S. Sugar. The company has given $538,000 overall to the governor and various legislative political committees, including $80,000 to AIF and Florida Chamber committees.

According to Division of Election records, $45,000 of U.S. Sugar’s donations went to three Florida Chamber committees, and another $30,000 went into two AIF committees. The company gave $22,500 to the Florida Chamber PAC, $15,000 to the chamber’s Florida Jobs PAC and $7,500 to the Southwest Florida Chamber Alliance. It gave $20,000 to the AIF PAC, and $10,000 to the Voice of Florida Business PAC.

Of these Florida Chamber political committees, the Florida Chamber PAC spent $171,000 on political committee expenditures while the others spent only $4,000 each. Among the largest recipients of donations from the Florida Chamber PAC were the political committees of Putnam, which received $100,000; Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, which received $25,000; Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, which received $15,000, and Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, which received $10,000.

AIF does not reveal its members and does not list its board of directors. Tom Feeney, AIF president, said his organization has not taken a position on the bills, and he would not comment on how members use the group’s political committees.

Mark Wilson, president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which operates 13 active political committees and two electioneering organizations, said his organization also does not have a position on the bills but says the practice of operating political committees is a service to members, and most of the contributions are smaller than the six-digit checks from the large corporations.

In addition to FPL and U.S. Sugar, records show that other large donors include FCCI Insurance Group, which has given $296,000 this year; Disney Worldwide, $272,025; Florida Blue, $254,500, and HCA affiliates, $235,000, according to a Herald/Times analysis.

If Gruters and Mayfield’s bill were to pass, none of the contributions to the business groups’ political committees could be funneled to legislative political committees.

“It’s a giant shell game, and to me it’s incredibly disappointing,” said Gruters, a freshman and former Sarasota County Republican Party chair.

He says he almost lost his state House race when, in the final 14 days of the campaign, an unknown political committee dropped 12 attack mailers on voters in his district — a cost Gruters estimates at $100,000. Because of the convoluted trail of contributions, and the Florida law that allows political committees to transfer money to other political committees without identifying the source of the funds, Gruters said he could never find who fronted the money.

“I’m a CPA I can track it but it goes into a black hole — almost like a clearinghouse — of these PCs and you can’t trace where the money is coming from,” he said. “That’s a major problem. I can’t take a cup of coffee and not report it without getting fined, but somebody can spend the value of a house against me, and for me not to be able to go thank them, I think is a real problem.”

But Gruters, who antagonized House Speaker Richard Corcoran by voting against his crackdown on Enterprise Florida, admits the measure is a long shot, even though it is keeping with the speaker’s goal of making the legislative process more transparent.

Mayfield has signed Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, as a co-sponsor and said the language has been reviewed by Senate elections committee staff. She hopes it gets a lift in the Senate and then is rolled into a committee bill in the House. The measure also rolls back some of the reporting requirements for political committees, which she said “get us back to some common sense.”

“While the bill doesn’t try to do a lot, what it does try to do is critically important,” said Bob White, chair of the Republican Liberty Caucus of Florida, which was in Tallahassee last week lobbying for campaign finance reform.

The New Port Richey-based group has started the “Come Clean in 2017” campaign to push for this and other reforms that end what they state on their web site is “legal laundering of millions of dollars in special interest campaign contributions through political committees controlled by legislative leaders.”

White argues that legislators have allowed special interests to control the legislative agenda and “it results in bigger government and bigger bureaucracies.”

“The voter, your average voter in Florida, is losing their voice in the Florida Legislature to the powerful special interests,” he said. “It’s become a pay-to-play environment, and we just object to that strenuously.”

Wilson, president of the Florida Chamber, said the 2017 contributions from FPL and U.S. Sugar are not unusual for the companies which traditionally are among the largest contributors to campaigns in the state. And while Wilson said “it doesn’t matter to us” if the legislation passes, he said it might increase tensions within an already a splintered Republican Party.

“What some see as a transparency problem, we see as a way to bring power back to the Republican Party and Democratic Party of Florida,” he said.

Before the law was changed to allow candidates to accept unlimited cash in their political committees, the chamber and others would raise money to send it to the party, he said.

But this year, when Gov. Rick Scott removed his Let’s Get to Work political committee from the RPOF and Senate Republicans also moved their leadership fund from the party, the Florida Chamber “didn’t write a check to the Republican Party of Florida this cycle,” Wilson said. “I don’t think anybody’s noticed that.”

“Now, there’s only one game in town who controls the party today and that’s the House,” Wilson said.

Democratic political consultant Steve Schale supports Gruters and Mayfield’s bill as a good first step but argues that a better step would be to “move to a system where committees are minimalized or firewalled off and everything runs through the actual candidate.”

As long as political money has been deemed speech by the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case, he said. “we deal with the world we live in by making everybody in the system accountable for money in, and money out — and we make it transparent.”

Ethics and corruption watchdog John Crangle talks about Dark money and how it affects tax payers and lawmakers in South Carolina.

How two of Florida’s largest corporate contributors spent their pre-session contributions in 2017:

U.S. Sugar contributions

* Contributions to political committees controlled by AIF and Florida Chamber would be prohibited from being transferred to political candidates under the Gruters/Mayfield bill

Latino Rising (PAC)

  

$2,500

Rebuild Florida (PAC)

Rep.. Jose Feliz Diaz

 

$10,000

Conservative Coalition for Florida's Fut (PAC)

Rep. Dane Eagle

 

$10,000

Building On Your Dreams Political Commit

Rep. Jim Boyd

 

$7,500

Free Markets for Florida (PAC)

Rep. Ray Rodrigues

 

$25,000

Veterans for Conservative Principles PC (PAC)

Sen. .Frank Artiles

 

$5,000

Florida Conservative Alliance (PAC)

Sen.. Aaron Bean

 

$5,000

Friends of Jason Brodeur PC (PAC)

Rep. Jason Brodeur

 

$15,000

Floridians for Common Sense (PAC)

Rep. Darryl Rouson

 

$5,000

Friends of Matt Caldwell (PAC)

Rep. Matt Caldwell

 

$20,000

Friends of Matt Caldwell (PAC)

Rep. Matt Caldwell

 

$5,000

Better Florida Education (PAC)

Rep. Manny Diaz

 

$5,000

Pledge This Day (PAC)

Rep. Jay Fant

 

$5,000

Floridians for Limited Government (PAC)

Rep. Doug Broxson

 

$5,000

* Associated Industries of Florida Politic (PAC)

Associated Industries of Florida (AIF)

 

$20,000

* Voice of Florida Business (PAC)

AIF

 

$10,000

Foundation for Our Children's Future (PAC)

Rep. Randy Fine

 

$5,000

Liberty Florida (PAC)

  

$5,000

Let's Get To Work (PAC)

Gov. Rick Scott

 

$100,000

People In Need of Government Accountabil

Sen. Rene Garcia

 

$5,000

Paving Florida's Future (PAC)

Rep. Tom Goodson

 

$5,000

Saving Florida's Heartland (PAC)

Sen. Denise Grimsley

 

$25,000

* Southwest Florida Chamber Alliance (PAC)

Florida Chamber

 

$7,500

* Florida Chamber of Commerce PAC (PAC)

Florida Chamber

 

$7,500

* Florida Chamber of Commerce PAC (PAC)

Florida Chamber

 

$15,000

* Florida Jobs PAC (PAC)

Florida Chamber

 

$15,000

Florida Grown PC (PAC)

Ag Comm Adam Putnam

 

$100,000

Florida Grown PC (PAC)

Ag Comm Adam Putnam

 

$5,000

Floridians for a Strong Economy (PAC)

Ag Comm Adam Putnam

 

$5,000

Florida Patriot Fund (PAC)

Rep. Halsey Beshears

 

$5,000

Truth in Politics, Inc. (PAC)

  

$25,000

Committee for Legislative Integrity & Tr (PAC)

  

$2,500

Sunshine State Conservatives (PAC)

Sen. Travis Hutson

 

$5,000

Jobs and Prosperity for Florida (PAC)

Rep. Jeanette Nunez

 

$5,000

Committee for Progress PC (PAC)

  

$2,500

Working Together For Florida PAC (PAC)

Sen. Kathleen Passidomo

 

$5,000

Floridians for Economic Freedom (PAC)

Rep. Chris Sprowls

 

$5,000

Friends of Dana Young (PAC)

Sen. Dana Young

 

$25,000

FPL contributions

Veterans for Conservative Principles PC

Sen. Frank Artiles

 

$1,997

Mitigation Banking for Florida's Future (PAC)

Mitigation Banking Association

 

$1,500

The Committee for Justice, Transportation (PAC)

Eric Dietrich Volusia County Sheriff

 

$15,00

Florida 2020 (PAC)

Rep. Loranne Ausley

 

$5,000

Conservative Coalition for Florida's Fut (PAC)

Rep. Dane Eagle

 

$5,000

Let's Get To Work (PAC)

Gov. Rick Scott

 

$100,000

* Southeast Florida Chamber Alliance (PAC)

Florida Chamber

 

$50,000

* Florida Chamber of Commerce PAC (PAC)

Florida Chamber

 

$150,000

* Florida Jobs PAC (PAC)

Florida Chamber

 

$100,000

* East Central Florida Chamber Alliance (PAC)

Florida Chamber

 

$50,000

* Florida Chamber of Commerce Alliance (PAC)

Florida Chamber

 

$150,000

PetroPAC (PAC)

  

$700

Working Together for Florida (PAC)

  

$5,000

Free Markets for Florida (PAC)

Rep. Ray Rodrigues

 

$15,000

* Associated Industries of Florida Politic (PAC)

AIF

 

$1,500

* Floridians for a Stronger Democracy (PAC)

AIF

 

$200,000

* Florida Prosperity Fund (PAC)

AIF

 

$200,000

* Floridian's United for Our Children's Future (PAC)

AIF

 

$200,000

Jobs for Florida (PAC)

Sen. Wilton Simpson

 

$25,000

Friends of Dana Young (PAC)

Sen.. Dana Young

 

$5,000

Advancing Florida Agriculture (PAC)

Rep. Ben Albritton

 

$10,000

Friends of Matt Caldwell (PAC)

Sen. Matt Caldwell

 

$5,000

BellPower PAC (PAC)

  

$10,000

Florida Grown PC (PAC)

Ag. Comm Adam Putnam

 

$250,000

Source: Florida Division of Elections  

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