Political consultants, secret donors, and the joke that is Florida campaign-finance law

Article Courtesy of The Orlando Sentinel

By Aaron Deslatte

Published 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 into races.

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 cockroaches comfortable.