News Section: Opinion
Best of 2013: PACs, Facts & Covering Tracks: Lessons from a Special Election
It's now been more than a month since attempts to pass a half-cent sales tax to fund indigent healthcare in Manatee County failed, but there's still plenty of bickering over why that was the case. From spurious ads and special interests to dueling PACs and shadow funding, the election had plenty of Shakespearean elements. However, those shadowy aspects say more about the flaws in Florida's campaign finance laws, than why each party's efforts failed or succeeded.
Recently, a PAC known as Manatee Against Taxation finally had to reveal some campaign finance information. It seems that the group used strategic timing of contributions and expenditures to ensure that they had nothing to report prior to the last date that would have been reported before the election took place. That meant that no one would know very much about who was funding their efforts. Only now that their report has been released, we still don't know much more about who's behind them.
What we do know is that Manatee Against Taxation, the primary opposition group to the sales tax, was fronted by Eric Robinson, a partner in the Venice accounting firm, Robinson, Hanks, Young & Roberts, as well as husband to Sarasota County Commissioner Christine Robinson. Mr Robinson, a local political heavyweight by any measure, has been a campaign officer or key fundraiser for many politicians on both sides of the Manatee/Sarasota county line.
From the looks of it, Robinson has in some capacity served the campaign of every Manatee County Commissioner except Michael Gallen and Vanessa Baugh, often working on efforts financed by the county's premier fundraiser, developer Carlos Beruff of Medallion Homes. A former chair of the Sarasota County Republican Party, Robinson also has close ties to infamous Sarasota GOP operative, Bob Waechter.
According to records, Robinson had $50,000 in the Manatee Against Taxation PAC through his firm. The other $65,000 came from another one of his PACs, the Committee to Protect Florida's Seniors. Unlike the other PAC, that one was in existence long before the sales tax issue. However, during the time Manatee Against Taxation was active, nearly every penny of the money raised by Committee to Protect Florida's Seniors went to Manatee Against Taxation.
Where did that group get its money, you might wonder? Well, from Veterans for Conservative Principles – yet another PAC, who got all of their money during the election from a group called Greenpoint Investors LLC – for whom no information could be found, though the address listed with the DoE is the same as Sarasota law firm Williams Parker Harrison Dietz & Getzen. Are you dizzy yet?
At the heart of Robinson's strategy are Florida campaign finance laws which allow for such a convoluted flow of money that hiding where money came from is pretty easy for someone who knows how to navigate those murky waters. Robinson clearly knows how. He heads many other PACs, which are active in many other issues, including another one that had a smaller role in the sales tax campaign called Manatee for Common Cents, which was funded by another $10,000 from Robinson's firm.
Simply put, if someone forms a whole bunch of different sorts of committees (that each have to play by a specific set of rules) and then donates money between them until there's no direct paper trail as to who donates and who receives, one can all but eliminate the supposed transparency of the system.
I'll give you an example. Mr. White wants to fund Mr. Black's attack ad campaign without being directly associated with it because Mr. White's business will almost certainly come before Mr. Black's board, should he win. So, Mr. White donates $50,000 to a group called Citizens for America, probably a corporate donation through an obscure LLC loosely-associated with his primary business. Two months later, Citizens for America makes a donation of $50,000 to Citizens Organized for Democracy. The next day, Citizens Organized for Democracy makes a $50,000 buy for TV, radio and direct mail pieces attacking Mr.. Black's opponent. Mr. Black wins the election and immediately votes in favor of an item that's worth millions to Mr. White.
If Mr. White was such a big part of Mr. Black's campaign, going far above and beyond the contribution limits of his regular campaign account to fund a PAC-driven effort to discredit his opponent, one might decry the vote on a conflict of interest. But there's not really any way to prove that Mr. White's money had anything to do with paying for the ads, especially if Mr. White gave money to several PACs, and several people gave money to Citizens for America, who in turn gave money to several other PACs in addition to Citizens for Organized Democracy. Did Mr. White direct the PACs' officers to disperse his money accordingly? It would seem so, but who's to say?
This is indeed a problem with the opaque system that our lawmakers In Tallahassee have perpetuated. I'm genuinely curious as to who was driving the effort to defeat the sales tax and why. Many citizens and citizen groups opposed it, to be sure, but who had enough of a financial interest in seeing it defeated to pony up big bucks? There has been speculation that land development interests were seeking to prevent the sales tax, in order to preserve the local discretionary sales surtax option to fund infrastructure needs that might otherwise be paid by builder impact fees.
Now, equally intriguing is the view of Robinson and company's rival on the issue – a group called Healthy Manatee, which was largely funded by hospitals and other interests who stood to benefit from the referendum passing. Their position is that Manatee Against Taxation was somehow playing dirty pool. It's almost as if they'd forgotten that long before Robinson and his people came on the scene, Healthy Manatee was already running an expensive and very misleading campaign in favor of the tax, telling voters that it would be akin to voting for property tax relief.
Healthy Manatee complained that direct mail pieces sent out by their adversaries warning that the language of the referendum did not restrict the half-cent from funding abortion services was a dastardly blow – one that may have even swung the election. First, there doesn't seem to be any evidence that voters bought into that line of thinking. Letters to the editors and blog comments at all of the local publications reflected a lot of reasons voters disliked the idea, but none of them had anything to do with abortion.
Second, the ads were no more misleading than those of Healthy Manatee, who not only got started much earlier, but also had much greater financial resources. In fact, the ads by Robinson's group were technically accurate. While no money from the current funding supports family planning of that nature, and there was no indication that the county was contemplating expanding funding to include such services, there was also nothing in the referendum that explicitly prevented it. Sure, it was extremely unlikely to happen, but the ads weren't debating that point. Meanwhile, Healthy Manatee's literature explicitly said that a vote for the sales tax was a vote for property tax relief, the most blatant of several claims the group promoted that were not merely disingenuous, but simply false.
The lesson on that aspect of the election seems to be that if you swim in shark infested waters, you're likely to get bit. For Manatee voters, they'd be well served to putting in a little extra time come the next election and go poking around the Florida Division of Elections and Manatee Supervisor of Elections websites to see who is behind all of those nasty attack ads you get in the mailbox or on the robo calls. Simply search the disclosure group in each database. You'll find it's not hard to connect the dots and see what motivations they might have to take down a particular candidate or issue.
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