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Power struggle: Latvala targets Putnam’s large donations from electric utilities

By Steve Bousquet
Scott Crellin, a trouble man for Duke Energy, works to cut tree limbs from a Tarpon Springs power line after Hurricane Irma. The utility's problems with getting power restored after the storm, and it's contributions to Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam's campaign for governor, have become an issue in the governor's race. [CHRIS URSO | Times]

TALLAHASSEE ó The 2018 race for Florida governor will be about power ó not just political power, but electric power.

The consensus front-runner for the Republican nomination for governor, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, has raised nearly $17 million so far, thanks in part to generous support from the stateís biggest utility companies, including Florida Power & Light and Duke Energy.

Records show that FP&L has contributed $587,000 directly to Putnamís political committee, Florida Grown, and that Duke has directly contributed $110,000.

But with widespread power outages and images of downed power poles fresh in the minds of Floridians, Putnamís GOP rival, Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater, is attacking the close alliance between Putnam and utility companies.

RELATED: Before Irma outages, Duke Energy cut its tree-trimming budget in Pinellas and Pasco

A Tampa Bay Times review of Dukeís state regulatory filings shows the company reduced its tree-trimming budget in the area by 25 percent, from $9.9 million to $7.4 million last year.

Latvala blasted Duke for cutting back on its tree-trimming budget in Pinellas and Pasco counties, a decision he said produced widespread "misery" after Hurricane Irma.

"They need to be spending that money on improving their grid and not giving it to politicians," Latvala said.

Utilities trim trees to reduce the chances that limbs will topple power lines and plunge more customers into darkness for longer periods.

Even though Irma struck Tampa Bay with greatly reduced force as a Category 1 storm, more than three-fourths of Dukeís Pinellas customers (78 percent) lost power. That was a much higher percentage than across Tampa Bay in Hillsborough and nearby counties, where Tampa Electric spent $10.7 million on tree trimming last year despite having only 60,000 more customers than Duke Energy.

"Itís blatant and itís unconscionable," Latvala said of Duke Energy.

In response, Putnam noted that Latvala has never been shy about taking Duke Energyís money in the past.

"For 16 years, he has accepted their money," Putnam said. "Iím not sure whether heís choosing to send all of it back that he has taken over the years."

Latvala announced on Sept. 19 that he would take no more campaign money from utilities in this election cycle. He did not return past utility contributions.

"Iíll give mine back if heíll give his back," Latvala said.

State records show Latvalaís PAC, Florida Leadership Committee, received about $40,000 from Duke Energy in four separate checks over a two-year period, including the largest contribution of $25,000 on July 27, according to the Division of Elections web site.

Duke spokeswoman Ana Gibbs said all utility political contributions are from Duke shareholders, not rate-paying customers.

"Each contribution is done in accordance with campaign finance laws and is publicly reported," Gibbs said in a statement.

She said Dukeís tree-cutting budget is done in three- to five-year cycles and varies depending on the type of power line, so that it "fluctuates." She said areas where vegetation can affect reliability are the companyís priorities.

Latvala accused Putnamís committee of accepting as much as $2.6 million in utility money, a figure he said includes contributions by FP&L, Duke, TECO and Gulf Power and "laundered" through other pro-Putnam committees such as Associated Industries of Florida.

On Sept. 27, nearly three weeks after Irma first struck Florida, campaign records show Duke Energy gave $55,000 to AIFís political committee, and on the same date, Putnamís Florida Grown recorded receiving $50,000 from AIFís PAC.

However, two days earlier, on Sept. 25, state records show, AIFís PAC listed the $50,000 as an expenditure.

Latvala called that a case of laundering and said AIF kept the extra $5,000 as a "carrying charge," adding: "Thatís how itís done."

AIF disagreed. "AIF does not discuss its political activity other than to say that the comments made by the senator are categorically false," said AIF president Tom Feeney, a former Republican congressman and House speaker.

Putnamís campaign spokeswoman, Amanda Bevis, declined to comment on Latvalaís claim. Dukeís Gibbs declined to address it.

Duke Energyís high-dollar contributions to candidates and committees are made in the companyís name.

The utility has a separate entity, Duke Energy Corporation of Florida PAC, which gave less than $300,000 to candidates, mostly in checks of $1,000, and has been dormant for four years.

The proximity of utility money moving to pro-Putnam PACs and to Putnamís own PAC was first reported by the Florida Politics news site.

In response to Latvala, Putnam criticized the senator for his statements last month that state officials overreacted to the threat of Irma by ordering mass evacuations days before the storm hit the peninsula.

"I find it a little difficult to take hurricane advice from somebody who said that it was no big deal and that the governor was being too cautious in preparing 16 million people for an evacuation," Putnam said.

Latvala never used the words "no big deal." He told the Times/Herald in early September that the state "may have overdone it a little bit" by ordering nearly one-third of the stateís population to move out of Irmaís way.

The rising tension between Putnam and Latvala places the two Republicans on a collision course two-and-a-half months before the 2018 legislative session begins.

As Senate budget chairman, Latvala has influence over whether Putnamís priorities will be funded by the Senate.

In addition, Putnam donors, such as Duke Energy, could face a more hostile political environment in the Senate in the session starting in January.

Latvala provided a hint of whatís ahead at a recent Senate committee hearing.

Chief executive Mark Wilson of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, a statewide business group that has given $400,000 to Putnamís committee and $785,000 more through Chamber PACs, cited a lack of tree-trimming in Pinellas for the widespread outages and said people were complaining to him about it.

Wilson acknowledged he was not an expert on the issue and said: "I donít know whose responsibility that is."

Latvala, a member of the Senate Commerce & Tourism Committee, told Wilson that the tree-clearing was Dukeís responsibility, citing details of the Timesí report on Dukeís cutbacks in tree-trimming that was published that morning.

St. Petersburg-based Duke Energy has contributed a total of $10 million to candidates and political committees since 1999, state campaign finance records show. More than $6.2 million went to a committee that pushed a controversial solar power ballot measure that voters rejected last November.

Times staff writer Zachary T. Sampson contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] and follow @stevebousquet.