TALLAHASSEE — Cockroaches hide 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 election advertising.
This election, we've seen consultants from both parties who have calculated it makes sense tactically to not disclose their donors, even if it runs afoul of state law.
One example is a group called "Progressives" that has sent mailers attacking Democratic state Senate candidates Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville; Darren Soto, D-Orlando; Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach; and Volusia County Chairman Frank Bruno. The name and content — accusing Sachs, for example, of contributing to George W. Bush — are intended to look like they're sent by Democrats.
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 to a fund that incoming Senate leaders such as Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, used this year to steer $2.9 million into races.
Coates is an elections lawyer who 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.
If you believe reports filed with the Florida Division of Elections since September, "Progressives" hasn't raised or spent a dime. But the reports are fiction. Tens of thousands of dollars in direct mail has shown up all over the state.
The Democrats' only recourse was to file an elections complaint. But all the state can do is fine "Progressives," which will never have to pay, because it's a shell company with no assets.
"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. Gaetz said he had no knowledge of Progressives' activities and didn't know who Jones was — even though his Florida Conservative Majority committee gave Jones' Liberty Foundation of Florida nearly $3 million for campaigns this summer.
"I haven't kept track of these various splinter groups," 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 lawyer for the Florida Education Association and public-employee unions — and the registered agent for another group keeping its donors secret.
Protect Florida's Taxpayers Inc., incorporated as a 501(c)(4) "issue" organization, has bought TV ads criticizing Amendment 4, a Realtor-backed proposal to give beefier property-tax breaks to new homeowners, second-home owners and businesses. But thanks to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling saying such "issues" groups engage in protected speech, it doesn't have to disclose donors.
"It's just speech. There's no state regulation on it," Meyer said.
Realtors have accused cities and counties of funding the ads. Though the FEA has said it isn't funding the group, the Florida League of Cities and Florida Association of Counties would not comment.
Other committees spending more than $7 million for and against the 11 amendments on the ballot are disclosing their donors. So why isn't Meyer's group?
Perhaps because it would be embarrassing if local governments or public employees were seen directing big dollars into a campaign aimed at preventing taxpayers from keeping more of their money.
And Florida's election laws allow the cockroaches to remain comfortable.
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