Article Courtesy of The
By Aaron Deslatte
November 4, 2012
TALLAHASSEE – Cockroaches have a survival instinct to scurry from the
light. And so do some of Florida’s highest-paid elections lawyers and
consultants, who have done their darnedest this year to cover up the
financing behind their advertising antics.
Florida lawmakers in 2010 overrode a veto by Gov. Charlie Crist to enact
an elections law that made it a first-degree misdemeanor for consultants
running electioneering groups to knowingly submit false campaign-finance
reports about their activities.
But this election, we’ve seen a few cases where consultants from both
parties have calculated it makes more sense tactically to skirt
disclosing their donors.
One of which is a group called “Progressives” that tried a head-fake
with mailers attacking Democratic state Senate candidates Audrey Gibson,
D-Jacksonville, Darren Soto, D-Orlando, Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, and
Volusia Commission Chairman Frank Bruno.
The mailers are made to look like criticism coming from a fellow
Democratic group, accusing Sachs for instance of giving money to
President George W. Bush.
But in fact, the effort was orchestrated by Republican operatives
Stafford Jones and Richard Coates. Jones is chairman of the Alachua
County GOP, and has been a political consultant to outgoing Senate
President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, as well as a fund incoming
Senate leaders like Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, used to steer $2.9 million
Coates is an elections lawyer for GOP politicians accused of ethical or
elections law violations. He handles legal work for future House Speaker
Chris Dorworth, R-Lake Mary, and Senate President-designate Don Gaetz,
R-Niceville, as well as the Republican Party of Florida.
Jones and Coates haven’t raised or spent a dime out of the Progressives
“electioneering-communications organization,” if you believe the reports
filed with the Florida Division of Elections since September.
But the reports are fiction. Direct-mail can cost tens of thousands of
dollars or more in legislative races. And the group’s mail has shown up
from Duval to Broward counties. And under Florida law, “expenditures”
are defined as occurring once the messages hit the mailboxes – even if
the invoices haven’t been sent to “Progressives” yet.
The only recourse for the Democrats attacked was to file an elections
complaint. But all the state can do is fine “Progressives,” which will
never have to pay, because it’s the political equivalent of a shell
company with no assets. First-degree misdemeanors are punishable by up
to a year in jail, but that would require proving the treasurer of the
committee knowingly submitted false reports. It also could skirt
punishment by amending its reports after the election.
“It’s a huge loophole,” said Democratic elections lawyer Ron Meyer. “It
tells people we have all these laws, but you can basically ignore them.”
Neither Coates nor Jones returned requests for comment, and Gaetz said
he didn’t know who Jones was and had no knowledge of Progressives’
activities even though his Florida Conservative Majority committee gave
Jones’ Liberty Foundation of Florida nearly $3 million this summer.
“I haven’t kept track of these various splinter groups. I understand
there are many of them,” Gaetz said. “If there are places where we need
to cinch up and make sure people are accountable for their actions, I’d
be willing to look at that.”
But the veil of secrecy is bipartisan. Meyer is a prominent lawyer for
the Florida Education Association and other unions, and himself is the
registered agent for another group also eager to keep its donors secret:
Protect Florida’s Taxpayers, Inc.
The group, incorporated as a 501(c)(4) issue organization, has bought
television ads criticizing Amendment 4, a Realtor-backed constitutional
proposal to give beefier property tax breaks to new homeowners,
second-home owners, and businesses. The same 2010 elections bill, HB
1207, also exempted issue advocacy from the disclosure law – thanks
largely to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling invalidating tighter
regulation of speech.
Realtors have accused cities and counties of being behind the ads. While
the FEA has said they aren’t funding the group, the Florida League of
Cities and Florida Association of Counties have refused to comment.
FAC spokeswoman Cragin Mostellerwrote in an email that the group
wouldn’t discuss “strategy or tactics” but that “we are glad to see the
side-effects of amendment 4 being debated in the public arena.”
Meyer insists there is a distinction, because the 2010 law had to exempt
“issue” related advertising from its electioneering law re-write.
“It’s just speech. There’s no state regulation on it,” Meyer said.
But the other committees spending in excess of $7 million for and
against the amendments on the ballot are disclosing their donors.
So, why is Protect Florida’s Taxpayers more interested in protecting its
own donors? Just hypothetically speaking, it might be embarrassing if
local governments or state employees were directing big-dollars into a
campaign aimed at preventing taxpayers from keeping more of their money.
Thankfully for them, Florida’s election laws are gamed to keep the