In a state with a reputation for political scandal, Florida’s 2020 elections saw a particularly brazen scheme to swing three state Senate races. A “dark money” group sent out mailers promoting the campaigns of three “sham” candidates—in one case, diverting enough votes to a candidate with the same last name as former Democratic Sen. José Javier Rodríguez to defeat him. Rodríguez lost by just 32 votes, and Democratic candidates in the other two districts were defeated as well.
The Orlando Sentinel reported that the group behind the misleading mailers, which has renamed itself as Grow United, received a $1.15 million donation from an organization closely tied to the business trade association Associated Industries of Florida. A Dec. 2 Sentinel investigation detailed the group’s consultants’ close coordination with electric monopoly Florida Power & Light, as well as the power utility’s ties to state Republican leaders, who control the chamber and can block bills like one that would empower solar electricity generators.
Florida organizations supporting Democrats also donated $700,000 to Grow United to obscure the funding source behind expenses like election mailers, a revelation that led to the resignation of a senior House adviser.
Last month, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs launched an investigation into one of Grow United’s donors. The “sham” candidate in Rodriguez’s race pled guilty last August and is cooperating in testimony against the consultant who allegedly put him up to it, former Republican state Sen. Frank Artiles. Artiles has pled not guilty in the case.
With dark money rampant in the state, especially in state Democratic primaries, a Florida Republican is seeking to make it a crime for public officials to request or release information about the sources of money behind election spending by groups that are not required to reveal their donors.
In January, Republican Florida Rep. Toby Overdorf introduced the Personal Information Protection Act (H.B. 1547), which would prohibit public agencies from requesting that any individual, corporation, or other entity release personal information besides what is already required by campaign finance and other laws, or when they have a lawful warrant to seek the information. The bill would also prohibit agencies from publishing such information they may have in their possession. Florida Senator Joe Gruters introduced a similar bill in the Senate (S.B. 1848) that would do the same thing, but only for personal information of donors and other individuals affiliated with 501(c)(3) organizations, though its sponsor says he’s willing to broaden it to cover other types of groups. Each bill would allow for the right of civil action and violators could face possible prison time of up to 90 days.
The House version would prevent campaign finance regulators from trying to force non-disclosing organizations like (c)(4) nonprofits to reveal their donors when they spend money to influence elections in the state.
The new Florida bill is modeled after a policy propagated by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a nonprofit that brings together corporate lobbyists with conservative lawmakers to advance legislation that favors business interests. Rep. Overdorf is one of about 31 Florida elected officials listed as ALEC members as of April 2021, according to a state public records request from the nonprofit Center for Media and Democracy (CMD). Gruters is the chair of the Florida Republican Party, re-elected to that position last month, and is a close ally of former President Trump, having co-chaired his 2016 state campaign.
In recent years, such bills criminalizing the disclosure of politically-active nonprofits’ donors have spread to a number of states, passing into law in 2021 in Arkansas, Iowa, South Dakota, and Tennessee.
“These types of bills are unnecessary—there are already constitutional protections for donors that would actually face threats, harassment, or reprisal from public identification—and their only true achievement may be to simply impede transparency for politically active nonprofits and make dark money darker,” said Aaron McKean, legal counsel for state and local reform at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, which works to increase transparency in democracy.
“Voters have a right to know which wealthy special interests are spending big money to influence their vote and rig the political system in their favor,” said McKean. “Florida’s legislators should be focused on ensuring voters know the true sources of money used to influence elections.”
A poll commissioned by the Campaign Legal Center previously found strong bipartisan support for “publicly disclosing contributions to organizations involved in elections” so that wealthy special interests cannot operate with impunity and politicians can be held accountable.
Florida has led the nation in public corruption convictions for much of the past couple decades. From 1976 to 2018, Florida was among the top 10 states in federal corruption convictions per 10,000 residents, according to a report from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
A longtime state ethics watchdog tells Sludge that the practice of routing funds through dark money groups will proliferate in the state until the Legislature has the political will to stop it.
“I don’t think there will be any reduction in dark money in elections, it’s just going to increase,” said Ben Wilcox, research director of the nonprofit Integrity Florida. “The campaign finance system in Florida is so dysfunctional, it makes this sort of activity so easy to do, and easy to hide the source of campaign donations. There are all sorts of loopholes.”
With the end of Florida’s legislative session coming next month and the bills not gathering co-sponsors, Wilcox thinks that the state’s investigation into the Grow United case has likely chilled their support this year. But Wilcox tells Sludge, “The fact that they filed the bills this year, to further protect the sources of dark money, it tells you whether or not the bills pass this year, they probably will come next year. The powers that be are intent on keeping dark money dark.”
Wilcox also pointed to a loophole in state campaign finance law that allows unlimited donations to state political committees controlled by politicians. “It’s a form of legal corruption,” he said.
“When you look at Florida Power & Light, they give the maximum to various candidates, and then all the big money goes into the political committees, donations of $100,000 and more.” State campaign finance records show that in recent years, the committee Friends of Ron DeSantis has received donations of over $10 million total from Citadel hedge fund manager and GOP megadonor Ken Griffin, $850,000 from investment company Spring Bay Capital, $200,000 from Kane Financial Services, and nearly $125,000 from the Florida Home Builders Association, among many others.
Last May, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law S.B. 1890, a bill sponsored by Republican State Sen. Ray Rodrigues, that would have set a $3,000 cap on contributions to political committees supporting or opposing constitutional amendments until the measure obtains enough valid signatures to qualify for the ballot. Florida lawmakers left untouched the ability for donors to make unlimited donations to candidates’ political committees. The law was blocked in federal court on July 1, the day it was slated to take effect, and in August Florida’s Attorney General did not appeal, leaving the injunction in place.
The Tampa Bay Times reported last month that lobbyist Jorge Chamizo provided the bill language to staff of Senate sponsor Gruters, working on behalf of two groups: People United for Privacy and Opportunity Solutions Project. According to CMD, which tracks dark money groups, People United for Privacy was formed by the State Policy Network, an umbrella organization of right-wing causes. Opportunity Solutions Project is the advocacy arm of the Florida-based Foundation for Government Accountability, a State Policy Network member.
This year, Jorge Chamizo is registered to lobby for a long list of business clients, including Associated Industries of Florida and Duke Energy, which was an ALEC member as recently as 2020. Other clients of Chamizo this year include Peoples Gas System, Tampa Electric Company, health insurer Anthem, health care provider Centene, and Uber.