Unlimited money floods into Florida lawmakers' campaign funds
When state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, held a fundraiser to promote his bid for Senate president, the invitation was straight and to the point: "No maximum amount."
Hundreds of people came to Ruth Eckerd Hall on May 16 with checks to the Florida Leadership Fund. Created and controlled by Latvala, the fund has grown to nearly $1 million, nearly half of it raised since April.
"It's a self-defense mechanism for me," says Latvala, whose strategy to be Senate president in 2016 has hit resistance from some conservative Republican senators. "I have to have a way of helping my friends and people who are committed to me to be president."
Latvala is one of dozens of state lawmakers taking advantage of a legal loophole that allows them to raise and spend millions from special interests, as a ban on lobbyist gifts prevents them from accepting a cup of coffee from a lobbyist.
Even members of Congress cannot take unlimited checks from the interests they oversee.
"Everyone seems to have one nowadays. They are just rife with potential problems," says lawyer Mark Herron, an election-law expert who sets up funds for Democrats. "It creates a real appearance of impropriety when people get many, many thousands of dollars from people they're supposed to be regulating."
The campaign funds — known as CCEs, committees of continuous existence, or 527s, in reference to part of the IRS code — are multiplying, and more than 100 now exist. Thirty more lawmakers have recently created them, raking in five-figure checks from influential donors such as Blue Cross Blue Shield, U.S. Sugar, Progress Energy, Disney, Florida Power & Light and the Geo Group, a for-profit prison operator.