Sunday, December 11, 2016


Posted December 10, 2016 06:01 pm - Updated December 10, 2016 09:44 pm
By Tia Mitchell
Dozens of Florida political committees being fueled by millions in ‘dark money’

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, plans to address campaign finance reform during his two-year term. (Florida House of Representatives)

When William S. Jones is chairman of a political committee, the committee’s address is usually listed as 115 E. Park Ave. Suite 1 in Tallahassee. That address is home to both a lobbying business and law firm led by Richard Coates. Both Coates and Jones are active in Florida GOP politics.

The address used by Florida First Forever political committee is a mailbox at a UPS Store in Tallahassee. The same UPS store is also listed as the mailing address for two other committees. All of them list Samuel Elliott as treasurer.

Newly elected Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, said dark money played a role in his primary earlier this year.

Brian Hughes is the spokesman for Families for Safety and Prosperity, a political committee created in September to support the slot machine referendum in Jacksonville.

Ben Wilcox, research director of Integrity Florida, says Florida could take additional measures to improve transparency for political committees.

Brad Ashwell, vice chairman of advocacy group Common Cause Florida, says Florida should require political committees to be more transparent.

TALLAHASSEE | Families for Safety and Prosperity is a political committee created in September to support the slot machine referendum in Jacksonville. But you wouldn’t know that from the official documents the committee filed with the state.

Nothing about the referendum, the gaming industry or Jacksonville Greyhound Racing, the committee’s sole source of revenue, is mentioned. Only one person is named: Southwest Florida accountant Eric Robinson, who serves as Families for Safety and Prosperity’s chairman, treasurer and point of contact. In the blank on its Statement of Organization form where committees disclose issues or candidates they support, it says merely: “To Be Determined.”

Robinson said in an interview he doesn’t know anything about how Families for Safety and Prosperity decides to spend its money or its ties to the slots referendum and that effort’s biggest beneficiary: the Bestbet Jacksonville poker room. Bestbet is owned by Jacksonville Greyhound Racing.

“I don’t speak for the committee,” Robinson said. “I just do the accounting.” He directed questions to political strategist Brian Hughes.

Hughes, in an email, said, “Eric Robinson is a CPA, a Republican, and an expert in campaign finance compliance.” He continued, “His listing as chairman and all filings by both political committees are in full compliance with all the laws and regulations that guide campaign finance in Florida.”

State campaign finance rules require political committees to provide basic information about their missions, the candidates they are backing and issues they support or oppose. Often that information is too general or too vague to provide a clear understanding of the committee’s focus. Place holder information like “to be determined” is accepted by the state and never updated despite a requirement in law that once a change is necessary new documents should be filed within 10 days.

A Times-Union analysis of the nearly 1,000 political committees active in Florida found that one out of every seven committees are operating in the shadows. Even after combing through public records, various state databases and internet search results, it’s difficult to pinpoint why these committees were created or whom they are intended to benefit. While their income and expenses are reported, the details of those expenditures are not. Also left unclear is who exactly is calling the shots.

In federal political campaigns, increasing amounts of money are being donated and spent without any public disclosure. Dubbed dark money, this spending originates from nonprofit and corporate entities that by law do not have to disclose their political contributions.

Florida has its own brand of dark money. Here political committees must report their incomes and expenses but do not have to disclose on what the money was spent. Requirements to divulge the purpose of a political committee go ignored. Names, addresses and phone numbers listed on disclosure forms often lead nowhere. So while the requirements here are more stringent, Florida voters can still be left in the dark.

Florida’s biggest dark money committees are frequently interrelated, passing money to each other in ways that make the elections process here even murkier. Of the 10 dark money committees in Florida that raised the most money from 2014 to November 2016, the most recent election cycle, eight have financial connections to one another and the Republican Party. In that time, at least $2.2 million flowed between them.

A ninth committee, Florida for All, gets most of its money from a shadowy nonprofit organization that has been accused of covertly trying to influence races in Florida to benefit Democrats. That benefactor, Win Florida, does not have to disclose its donors because it is registered with the IRS as a 501(c)(4) organization, according to Politico Florida and the Miami Herald. Labor unions have contributed directly to Florida for All and, reportedly, through Win Florida.

The 10th largest dark money committee is funded by a long list of Miami businesses and developers. Miami’s Future has raised $1.5 million, but spent very little of it through early November. Several candidates for state and local offices in Miami-Dade County received $1,000 checks from the committee, the maximum allowed under Florida law.

Public records tell some of the story about Florida’s political committees. But information is found in multiple state databases that must be searched individually and pieced together. Even then, pertinent information that would help voters understand a committee’s role in any particular race can be elusive.

Newly elected Sen. Greg Steube said he saw this up close during his primary earlier this year, a five-way race for the GOP nomination. Steube said supporters of one of his opponents used political committees to influence the election.

“They would raise money for PC No. 1 and move it to PC No. 2, and PC No. 2 would do attack pieces in my race,” Steube said.

There have been calls for reforms over the years, such as requiring Florida political committees to provide more information more often about the candidates and issues they support or oppose, including more specific accounting of their expenditures. House Speaker Richard Corcoran has vowed to make ethics and transparency a hallmark of his two-year term and has in the past said he would support rules that prohibit state representatives from forming or raising money for political committees.

Steube, R-Sarasota, would do away with political committees altogether and require political advertising to come straight from candidates’ accounts.

He said, “I can guarantee you that the amount of negative campaigning and false campaigning will go down dramatically.”

‘To be determined’ issue

For many political committees, the issues start with what they choose to call themselves. Unlike committees whose names help identify their missions — it’s not hard to figure out what the Florida Education Association Advocacy Fund or Florida OBGYN PAC are about — dark money committees have grandiose names that shed little light on their mission or scope.

Often their names connote patriotism and noble causes. Among the 10 largest dark money committees, three include the word “citizens” in their names: Citizens Alliance for Florida’s Economy, Citizens First, and Citizens for Florida Prosperity.

“They all put these nice-sounding names on it, but what these political committees are is nothing more than private committees that legislators and others use to raise unlimited amounts of money and skirt campaign finance limits,” said Bob White, a Melbourne resident who is spokesman for a coalition of right-leaning groups pushing for campaign finance reforms.

One of the greatest limitations to transparency is that most committees get away with not saying for whom or what they plan to advocate. “To be determined” is used on the organizing documents of virtually every dark money committee.

Families for Safety and Prosperity uses that same language. So does Build Something That Lasts, a political committee connected to Mayor Lenny Curry that was active in helping push a pension-tax referendum in Jacksonville. Hughes said there are other ways the public can find out information about these committees.

“For example, if the committees do advertising on an issue, that advertising carries a legal disclaimer that clearly states the committee’s name and other information,” Hughes said by email.

One former state lawmaker, Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, is one of the few to face sanctions for this widespread practice. He paid a $400 fine to the Florida Elections Commission in September after a complaint was validated that his political committee was advocating on behalf of a specific candidate despite the “to be determined” language in its organizing documents.

Diaz de la Portilla is suing the state in federal court over the issue, saying that his free-speech rights were violated by the requirement to disclose his committee’s intentions and that he was unfairly singled out for something that many other political committees also do.

The Elections Commission is not empowered to automatically cite the hundreds of other political committees that are in the same boat. If no complaint is filed, they continue to get away with it.

A spokeswoman for the Division of Elections said it is the responsibility of political committees to let the state know when they need to update “to be determined” language. The Division of Elections can let the Elections Commission know when it determines that violations of the law have occurred, but that hasn’t happened in most cases.

Addresses and phone numbers

The Times-Union’s examination of Florida’s political committees uncovered a robust cottage industry of campaign consultants and accountants who set up and manage political committees.

Robinson’s hometown paper, Sarasota’s Herald-Tribune, said he is called “the prince of dark money” because of his involvement in setting up dozens of political committees that have allowed outside dollars to influence state and local races.

The largest dark money committee identified by the Times-Union, Citizens Alliance for Florida’s Economy, raised just shy of $2 million over the last two years and is headed up by Anthony Pedicini, a GOP campaign consultant. It has direct financial connections to five other dark money committees, in addition to receiving donations from the Republican Party of Florida and the party’s Miami-Dade County arm.

William Stafford Jones, chairman of the Alachua County Republican Executive Committee, is listed on the documentation for nearly 40 political committees. About a dozen of them don’t provide enough publicly available information to determine who or what the committee exists to benefit. All but a handful of Jones’ committees have the same mailing address: 115 E. Park Ave., Suite 1, in Tallahassee.

Located in that office are firms owned by Richard Coates, a lobbyist, a campaign consultant and an attorney for the Republican Party of Florida. A receptionist at the office told a visitor that Jones uses this business address but doesn’t work there. Calls to his voicemail were not returned.

Other committees look like they are located in an office, but their addresses amount to nothing more than mail drops. One popular location is a UPS Store next door to a Tallahassee Publix supermarket.

State laws require political committees to include a phone number on official documents. That leads to an interesting revelation about Florida First Forever, a dark money committee that raised $1.2 million during the recent election cycle.

The phone number associated with the committee belongs to Russell Doster, a real estate agent in Tallahassee. He told the Times-Union he filed the paperwork to help set up the committee but doesn’t have any involvement in its day-to-day activities.

Doster’s son is GOP campaign consultant Brett Doster. His company, Front Line Strategies, has a lengthy roster of clients that includes two dozen recent candidates for office, the Republican Party of Florida and the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

Brett Doster told the Times-Union that he works with various political committees, depending on the candidate or cause. He declined to name any specific committees but said there is separation between his work and what his father does filing paperwork for such entities.

The vast majority of political committees active in Florida are reasonably transparent. They have direct ties to a lawmaker, special-interest group or lobbyist that can be discovered if a person is familiar enough with Florida’s hodgepodge of public records databases to know where to look. But the Division of Elections doesn’t make it easy.

For example, Jones registered the Conservatism Counts political committee in March and serves as its chairman, treasurer and registered agent. Its Statement of Organization says “to be determined” in the space to list any candidates or individuals the committee is supporting.

A separate state database tells a different story. This database allows the public to search Officeholder Statements of Solicitation, documents filed by state-level elected officials and candidates when they raise money for a political committee.

This is where Leslie Dougher, the former Republican Party of Florida chairwoman who ran unsuccessfully for the House this year, submitted paperwork in March that she had a role in maintaining Conservatism Counts by helping raise money. Two months later, Dougher, who lives in Green Cove Springs, told the state that she was no long affiliated with the committee.

To find out who donated to Conservatism Counts and how it spent money during the time Dougher was running for office, a voter would have to navigate to the campaign finance database. Ben Wilcox, research director for Integrity Florida, said the hodgepodge of public records is among his concerns.

“First of all, it’s difficult to find on the state campaign finance database how to actually get to that Statement of Solicitation,” he said. “And then it doesn’t merge or bring together any of that other information.”

If Dougher’s Statement of Solicitation mentioning Conservatism Counts could be found in the same place as the committee’s Statement of Organization, it would be easier for members of the public to connect the dots.

There isn’t such a clear fix for about 150 dark money committees with unspecified missions and public records that don’t shed more light. These entities have raised on average $193,152 during the 2016 campaign cycle.

Florida voters may see these committees listed in disclaimers on mailers or hear their names rattled off at the end of a radio advertisement. Voters may try to search online for additional information, but for many committees the public records do not tell the full story of a political committee.

“Why are people fed up with the system? This is exactly why,” said Brad Ashwell, vice chairman of advocacy group Common Cause Florida. “All of these interests can influence the process, and it’s virtually indecipherable to a regular person why this is happening.”

Tia Mitchell: (850) 933-1321


Eric Robinson is the chairman, treasurer and point of contact for Families for Safety and Prosperity, a political committee created to support the slots referendum in Jacksonville. In this recording, the Southwest Florida accountant and GOP elected official says he has no real power over the committee even though his name is the only one listed on official documents.

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