Direct donations to campaigns for the Florida Legislature are limited to $1,000. But lawmakers have a way around that: their own political action committees. These PACs allow for big-dollar contributions, lavish spending and curious exchanges of funds between lawmakers.
Florida state Senate and House members will descend on Tallahassee Jan. 14 for another year of Republican control of the Legislature — and the knowledge that control pays off.
There are limits on the amount of money corporations and individuals can give directly to political candidates’ campaigns. But thanks to Republican-led legislation in 2013, many lawmakers now control their own political committees, often referred to as PACs. The amount of money a company or individual can donate to a legislator’s PAC is limitless.
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Republican legislators, especially, have taken full advantage.
A Daytona Beach News-Journal investigation found PACs controlled by current Republican House and Senate members total $728 million. In contrast, Democratic legislators’ PACs total just $19 million.
While there are regulations on how PACs can spend their money, Ben Wilcox, research director of Integrity Florida, said laws governing PACs contain loopholes “so big you could drive a truck through them.”
Republican state Rep. Paul Renner’s “Conservatives for Principled Leadership” PAC spent $13,000 on a luxury-soaked trip through wine country in Oregon last summer. The trip was legal, Renner of Palm Coast explained, because it was for fundraising purposes. As of the end of November, Renner’s PAC had raised more than $1.7 million.
“Money attracts power and the power attracts the money,” said Aubrey Jewett, co-author of “Politics in Florida. “There’s a little of a chicken-and-egg thing here … or a vicious circle of politics. You raise the money and interest groups want to help you win. Once in office, you get more money, and they continue to get access.”
Suitcases of money conjure up a darker era of politics. But in modern-day Florida, large cash contributions are made in the full light of day. PACs report contributions, expenditures and donations every month that the public can access via the Florida Elections Commission website. PAC funds can’t be spent on legislators’ personal needs.
But how many voters take the time to dive into this data? And to add to the confusion, the way PACs can forward money to other PACs can obscure contributions.
Additionally, candidates who sock money away in their PACs can keep that money beyond their career in the Legislature and use it to fund runs for other state or local offices. Former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum spent money from his PAC on legal fees amidst investigations into other spending associated with that PAC.
Some lawmakers who control PACs said they wish the system didn’t allow for unlimited donations. But a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling has steered state laws in that direction.
How did we get here?
Here’s how the system works:
Legislators’ political campaigns have their own accounts, which are restricted by fundraising limits. In Florida, individuals and corporations are allowed one $1,000 contribution per election to a legislative candidate, or one $3,000 gift to state candidates such as governor.
Separately, there are PACs. Anyone can form a political committee to raise and spend money to help candidates or political causes. Elected officials and candidates themselves can form their own PACs. There is no limit to the amount of money an individual or company can give to a PAC.
In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission that corporations and unions have the right to unlimited spending on political messages, protected by the First Amendment’s free-speech guarantee.
That emboldened Florida’s new campaign-finance system in 2013.
Then-House Speaker Will Weatherford championed the changes, raising the maximum allowable donation by individuals to the direct campaigns of candidates for the House and Senate. That maximum went from $500, second lowest in the nation, to $1,000.
At the same time, the Legislature also established lawmakers’ ability to start political committees that could receive unlimited donations. The PACs, in turn, make donations to candidates, and also make donations to other PACs, or spend money toward message campaigns that target the opposition or champion favored candidates.
The result has been a cascade of political spending for campaigns and for political messaging that often includes attack advertising.
In his book, Jewett points out that more than $150 million was spent on state elections in Florida in 2002. In 2018, after Citizens United and the 2013 law change, candidates and committees raised more than $572 million for state races.
Some lawmakers, although they created a PAC, are uncomfortable swimming in such deep pools of money. Senate President Pro Tempore David Simmons has a PAC, the Citizens for Fiscal Leadership, but it hasn’t received a donation since June 2018. The PAC currently has a little more than $200,000.
“I firmly believe that money as a form of freedom of speech doesn’t mean you can spend money in unlimited amounts,” said Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs. “I think the Citizens United case … is fundamentally wrong.”
Simmons also believes PACs should be operating “with greater transparency.”
Three of Volusia County’s four House members have prolific PACs: Reps. Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast; David Santiago, R-Deltona and Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach.
Santiago voted for the limitless PAC contributions in 2013. He is the chair of two PACs that have raised more than $894,000.
“I would say in hindsight, I would probably prefer to have some level of caps on that, on the donations,” Santiago said. “I personally think there’s a lot of money in politics. I wish it wasn’t such a huge part of it.”
Renner called the 2010 Citizens decision “the law of the land.”
“Actually, our treatment of those (PACs) is still more transparent and more restrictive than on the federal side, where there’s very little of that,” Renner said.
Leek, who like Renner is an attorney, agreed Citizens United renders state attempts to limit spending money unconstitutional. Leek’s PAC, Living Life with Purpose, has raised $324,450.
“If we can take the money out of the system, you would have a better system. That’s plain and simple,” Leek said.
Rep. Anna Eskamani of Orlando is one of the few Democrats with her own political committee, People Power for Florida, which has raised $160,000 since 2017, with more than $108,000 of it coming from a single donor, the retired Orlando patent attorney Brian Anderson.
Eskamani would prefer a system without PACs and believes the Florida Legislature should test Citizens United by establishing a cap on giving to PACs.
“I have always told folks … you have to play the game but play by your own rules,” she said. “We started our (PAC) because we would be disadvantaged in our campaign if we didn’t.”
But Eskamani said she has imposed rules on herself by refusing donations from corporations and organizations with whom she doesn’t see eye to eye.
“Unless you come from wealth or have access to wealth, it’s very difficult to run for office or win a seat,” she said. “Elections would be more fair if we didn’t have (PACs).”
Not everyone is critical of PACs, or the amount of money in them.
The Institute for Free Speech, a Washington-based think tank that advocates for unlimited political spending, has taken the position that Florida’s system is too restrictive, rating it a C and calling it “partly cloudy in an comparison against laws in all 50 states.
The institute’s 2018 “Free Speech Index” report on “political giving freedom” notes that the $1,000 and $3,000 limits on campaigns are improvements over the $500 that had been in place prior to 2013, “but the state needs to go further — or simply index its limits to inflation — to improve its ranking in the Free Speech Index. Adjusting its limits for inflation to prevent the erosion of speech rights over time is a particularly easy — and smart — step that 30 states already take.”
Wilcox, whose organization Integrity Florida advised the Legislature in 2013, said he believes Americans are “stuck with” unlimited donations as a result of Citizens United, but lawmakers can improve campaign finance by eliminating the committees, allowing unlimited contributions to campaigns but requiring even greater transparency.
“It makes no sense to say that you’re putting any kind of limitation or regulation on contributions when you allow that avenue (PACs) for unlimited contributions,” Wilcox said. “We’re living under the illusion that there’s any limit (when) legislators or candidates can use their political committees for unlimited contributions and unlimited spending. It’s just kind of the wild, wild West.”
PAC reform is not a high-profile topic for upcoming legislative session. Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, has filed a campaign finance bill, SB516, that would prohibit transferring political committee funds to another political committee. The bill does not have a House companion.
Making it rain
As PACs go, the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee is one of the biggest. In five years, the party has raised nearly $69 million, much of it coming from Republican legislators’ PACs. The legislators’ PACs in turn, receive funding from corporations, associations and individuals who often have interests in laws under consideration.
The Senate campaign PAC has spent more than $66.5 million of that money — particularly during election years. A little more than two months ahead of the 2018 election, that committee spent more than $20 million helping to ensure victories for state senators, including Sen. Tom Wright of New Smyrna Beach.
The amount of money in individual PACs varies widely. Size is a pretty good indication of who’s got clout in Tallahassee.
Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, who is lined up to be Senate president in 2021, chairs the Senate campaign PAC, but also chairs three other PACs, including Jobs for Florida, which reports nearly $14 million in contributions.
The Democrats’ answer to the Republicans’ senatorial committee is the Florida Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, controlled by Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale, the party’s leader-designate. Where Republicans have raised nearly $69 million, the Democratic committee has raised just shy of $16 million.
Senate President Bill Galvano’s Innovate Florida PAC has collected more than $10 million. Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Orange Park, controls Working for Florida’s Families PAC, which has received nearly $3.5 million.
Sen. Lauren Book of Plantation leads all Democrats with personally controlled PACs. She has about $2 million in her Leadership for Florida committee.
House Leader Jose Oliva and future Leader Chris Sprowls are each in control of PACs that have individually collected nearly $4.4 million, while Loranne Ausley is the lone Democrat among the House’s top 10, with a PAC that’s had $367,000 in contributions.
The two newest Volusia County lawmakers, Rep. Elizabeth Fetterhoff, R-DeLand, and Wright, have raised less than $10,000 for their PACs.
Fetterhoff is facing a rematch with former Rep. Patrick Henry, a Daytona Beach Democrat. In 2018, Fetterhoff beat Henry by 61 votes out of more than 61,000 ballots cast.
Henry has control of the political committee Florida’s 99 United, a remnant of his two-year tenure in the Legislature. As of the end of November, it had more than $5,500 left, from a total of $12,500 he had raised, all of it before his loss to Fetterhoff.
But Henry had just $4,200 in his campaign account, as compared with Fetterhoff’s $93,000.
Spending money to make money
It probably doesnt come as a huge surprise that large business interests fuel many legislator-controlled PACs.
Leek has received more than $68,000 from Florida Power & Light and another $66,000 from the Florida Chamber of Commerce. Renner has taken in similar sums from those interests.
But it’s difficult to definitively track which corporations have given the most to lawmakers’ PACs. In part, that’s because some companies contribute to other PACs not controlled by lawmakers that in turn give to the lawmakers such as Leek and Renner.
For example, Floridian’s United for Our Children’s Future is a PAC with a name that looks like it contains a typo (the extraneous apostrophe in the first word is there in the filing papers). Floridian’s United money comes primarily from large corporate donors, such as FP&L, which has contributed $1.5 million of the $7 million the PAC has raised since 2014. U.S. Sugar Corporation has sweetened the pot with nearly $1.4 million, and Florida Crystals Corporation added an additional $953,000. The PAC is affiliated with Associated Industries of Florida.
The spending of political committee funds is restricted to activities related to the committee’s cause, which is often not spelled out in filing papers. Many PACs simply list their purpose as “to be determined.”
Jewett, the UCF professor, said PACs can spend money in any way that’s in service of the PACs often-fuzzy cause. Many expenditures can be justified as part of fundraising or strategizing.
“You have extremely wide latitude on how you can spend PAC money,” he said.
Renner’s PAC, Conservatives for Principled Leadership, spent nearly $13,000 on a trip to Oregon in July. Trip expenses included $2,800 at Ponzi Vineyards in Sherwood, and another $3,900 at Domaine Serene, a winery in Dayton. Domaine Serene’s restaurant, the 45th Parallel, offers guests “nuances of terroir by tasting our Burgundian and Oregon wines side-by-side — all elevated by locally sourced small plates paired to perfection.” The trip also included a $5,757 stay at the Allison Inn & Spa, which, according to its website, is “surrounded by sweeping views of wine country and farmland” in Newberg, and “a true escape from the business of everyday life.”
But wait, there’s more: The trip also involved hiring the chef of the Oregon Truffle Festival, and $3,186 for “an exclusive wine tour and private car service” supplied by Black Tie Tours.
Renner explained by saying, “Any fundraiser would have expenses to it. You typically keep those expenses in the 10% or less range and expect to raise more than that amount. That’s paid for essentially by the people who come and contribute.”
It’s not clear who Renner’s PAC was entertaining in Oregon, but Conservatives for Principled Leadership pulled in nearly $250,000 in July, the PAC’s most productive month of fundraising in its four-year history.
Other expenditures by local lawmakers’ PACs also may raise some eyebrows.
Leek’s PAC paid for travel, food and beverage bills in Nashville; in wine country in California; and in Miami, Denver, and Austin, Texas, among other places. The PAC also did fundraising in Orlando in August 2017, spending $677 at the Waldorf Astoria, a luxury hotel near Disney World, $560 at the Mexico pavilion of Epcot, and $305 at the Bull & Bear, which, according to a Google review, is “the Waldorf Astoria’s high-end steak destination with clubby quarters lit by chandeliers.”
Leek said he’s followed the legal requirements for spending PAC money.
“The trip to California was a statewide House leadership fundraising event that I attended as a guest at the request of House leadership,” Leek said.
He suspects the Orlando fundraising event was also tied to a House leadership effort, but said the ratio of expenditures to contributions justifies the trips. “I think I’ve given away $60,000 to campaigns and maybe spent $2,000 on fundraising.”
The records show Leek’s PAC has contributed $44,000 to candidates, and a little more than $13,000 on various fundraising expenses. That’s in addition to nearly $10,000 in treasurer services.
Santiago’s PAC has spent $23,045 on accountants, fundraising commissions and other expenses such as websites and Fed Ex, in order to produce $35,713 worth of campaign spending, with nearly $12,000 of that going to other candidate campaigns he supports.
It’s also purchased $752 worth of “outreach equipment,” which he said was a video camera with a stabilizer to eliminate choppy images. “That was for us to take video and promote different things,” Santiago said.
The PAC has spent at least $1,800 this year on office supplies and computer equipment.
“Laptops to take with you and a printer, I believe,” he said.
If someone were to question whether those or other candidates’ expenditures were above board, the agency to make a complaint is the Florida Elections Commission — comprised of governor appointees.
There’s a problem with that system, said Mark Herron, a Tallahassee ethics and elections law attorney whose clients have included Al Gore.
“It’s complaint-driven and one of the failings with the elections commission process is the complaint has to be based on personal knowledge and not based on hearsay,” said Herron, who administers dozens of PACs.
Republican state Sen. Travis Hutson of St. Augustine is currently unopposed, and seems a lock to win reelection in 2020.
He checks all the boxes of traditional political analysis. His district is more Republican than Democrat. And he’s got lots of money, with access to much more in the unlikely event he’ll need it.
Mike Cocchiola, the Flagler County Democratic Party chair, is trying to find someone to run for Hutson’s seat in District 7, which includes St. Johns and Flagler counties and part of Volusia County.
“They have to be virtually independently wealthy to match (Hutson’s money),” Cocchiolla said. “It discourages anybody, people like me, with a normal income. We can’t match Hutson’s money. It’s unlimited.”
Hutson, 35, began his legislative career with a squeaker of a race against a viable Democrat, Milissa Holland, who is now the mayor of Palm Coast. But Hutson, the son of a millionaire builder, was able to tap into his family and friends to raise more than five times as much money for his campaign as Holland. He edged her out by a 2% margin.
Hutson didn’t return multiple calls seeking comment. He has immediate access to about $500,000, three-quarters of which sits in the coffers of his political committee, the First Coast Business Foundation. And because he’s an incumbent in the party in power in a Republican-leaning district, even more money will flow his way.
Democrats and some public-policy advocates cry foul.
“There’s no question money in politics is adding to the degradation of our democracy. I’m concerned about the money the Republican Party is able to generate at all levels,” Cocchiola said.
Mark Ferrulo, executive director of Progress Florida, a St. Petersburg-based organization that works to advance causes such as social justice, economic fairness and healthcare reform, echoed that.
“I think the insane amount of special-interest money in our politics are corrupting the democratic process. It’s influencing the policies we see enacted in our state,” Ferrulo said.
Pathway to power?
Renner, who won his party caucus’ race for speaker starting in 2023-24, is chair of the House Judiciary Committee. He and Leek both acknowledge fundraising played a role in their landing in leadership.
“The expectation is that you will be raising money to maintain the House majority or the Senate majority to support your teammates,” said Leek, who’s chair of the Public Integrity and Ethics Committee. “Republicans do it. Democrats are trying to take control of the House. Money going to (PACs) is largely given to other candidates who are vying for office, and people who are essentially on your team to maintain Republican control. There’s an expectation, if not an obligation, if you move up into leadership.”
Leek said the notion of whether money begets power or power begets money is “a great question.”
“If you can demonstrate the ability to attract money, it certainly helps you move through leadership. If you’re the party in control, it certainly helps you raise money. It’s both.”
Money was present in the recent race for 2023-24 Senate president won by Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples over Hutson.
As recently as April 2019, Hutson described it as “a very tight race,” and he demonstrated his fundraising prowess to the party with hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican organizations, including $175,000 to the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee.
The website Florida Politics reported last month that the “tipping point” came with the support of state Rep. Ray Rodrigues of Fort Myers, a Senate candidate in 2020; and former state Rep. Jason Brodeur, a Sanford Republican who is running to replace Simmons.
On May 22, 2019, Hutson’s First Coast PAC gave both of those candidates, Rodrigues and Brodeur, $1,000 apiece.
But a PAC associated with Passidomo, Working Together For Florida, gave Rodrigues $1,000 on May 30 and topped that by also giving $25,000 to another PAC, Friends of Ray Rodrigues.
Working Together For Florida donated $30,000 to the Friends of Jason Brodeur committee on Aug. 6. Word of Passidomo’s victory came last fall.
A federal grand jury subpoena, as reported by the Tampa Bay Times, sought information on 2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gillum, his campaign, his political committee and more, earlier this year. That same committee, Forward Florida, has spent $240,000 on attorneys fees as of November, the Times reported. All told, Forward Florida raised nearly $39 million.
That Gillum’s committee even had money left after his narrow defeat to DeSantis last year rankled at least one of his prominent donors, the attorney and activist John Morgan.
Morgan and his law firm spend $1.7 million on Gillam’s campaign, and Forward Florida finished with more than $3 million unspent in 2018 — money Gillum is now using for a new campaign to register Democratic voters.
“He took our money and never used it,” Morgan said in August, the Tallahassee Democrat reported. Morgan also called Gillum’s PAC a “slush fund.” Gillum responded by calling Morgan a “DeSantis suck-up.”
But experts say carrying over PAC funds from previous stints in office isn’t illegal. At least three candidates with ties to Volusia County are doing just that.
One is Brodeur, a candidate for state Senate District 9. The seat includes a part of southwest Volusia County and was comprised of 37% Republicans, 33.7% Democrats and 28.5% no-party affiliation voters in 2018.
Brodeur thus far has no Republican challenger, but four Democrats are running for the open seat.
In addition to raising nearly $550,000 for his campaign, Brodeur has raised more than $2.1 million in his Friends of Jason Brodeur political committee. That includes $912,000 since the start of 2018.
That dwarfs the campaigns of all four Democrats combined. Alexis Carter has collected $25,136 thus far, plus another $5,000 in loans. Rick Ashby of Oviedo has raised $483 in contributions and taken out nearly $1,800 in loans. Guerdy Remy of Altamonte Springs reported no campaign funds through November.
A fourth Democrat, Alexander Duncan of Geneva, had raised $600 through November.
“I’m not really concerned with how much money (Brodeur) raises,” Duncan said. “At the end of the day, what voters will respond to is an innovative and exciting campaign from my end.”
Duncan said PACs have a negative connotation to voters. “We know special-interest money is to buy influence. It works and it’s legal,” he said.
Meanwhile, Brodeur has been able to pay a Tallahassee campaign fundraising firm nearly $120,000 in the past year — with most of that money coming from the PAC he created in 2016 as a member of the House.
Brodeur responded to a request for an interview with an emailed statement expressing pride in his door-knocking campaign and “the support we are receiving” from “teachers, homebuilders, small business owners, doctors, nurses and members of the law enforcement community.”
Brodeur’s email did not address the hundreds of thousands of dollars his PAC has received from the pharmacy industry, cannabis, tobacco, alcohol, sugar, healthcare, lobbying firms, power companies, law firms, insurance and other political committees.
Santiago, the Deltona Republican who’s entering his eighth and final year in the House, has been able to amass $292,000 in his Economic Growth PAC. In late October, he also gained control of the Eagle Eye PAC — which has raised about $600,000 — that had been chaired by Rep. Dane Eagle, a Cape Coral Republican and close friend of Santiago.
Eagle is running for Congress, and U.S. campaign rules prohibit him from using that money for his federal race.
“He entrusts me to do the right things with the funds,” Santiago said.
Santiago said he now intends to use money from the PAC he chairs to support another campaign.
He’s running for Volusia County tax collector.