Mystery surrounds largest donor to rival solar power ballot initiative
The biggest donor yet to a rival solar power ballot initiative backed by utility companies is a group that has never given campaign donations before in Florida and will not disclose who its supporters are.
A group calling itself “Let’s Preserve the American Dream” gave $200,000 to the utility-backed Consumers for Smart Solar, which was created seven months after a group supported by solar power companies and environmental organizations created Floridians for Solar Choice.
It’s the latest turn of events in the duel between the solar power ballot initiatives that have very different goals. Floridians for Solar Choice (backed by solar power companies and the League of Women Voters) want out of state solar power companies to be able to sell solar power to homeowners and businesses in Florida because the state’s existing utilities are not doing enough to promote that form of energy.
On the flip side, Consumers for Smart Solar are pushing an amendment that would in effect continue to allow only utilities regulated in Florida to provide solar power, and without competition from outside companies.
Consumers for Smart Solar have relied almost entirely on existing public utilities in Florida for financial support. FPL, Duke, Gulf Power and Tampa Electric have all given at least $160,000 each to the campaign.
The $200,000 from Let’s Preserve the American Dream is the largest donation yet. But who that group is shrouded in mystery. Consumers for Smart Solar, initially in campaign finance documents, identified that the group is a political action committee based at a mail box at a UPS Store two miles from the Florida State Capitol Building. The PAC’s chairman is Ryan D. Tyson, a Tallahassee lobbyist who also works as the vice president of Associated Industries of Florida – which is partly supported by state utility companies. But according to campaign finance reports, Tyson’s PAC did not report giving any money to Consumers for Smart Solar, despite their assertion it did. According to the Florida Division of Elections, Let’s Preserve the American Dream gave no campaign donations in September. But Consumers For Smart Solar reported getting the check for $200,000 on Sept. 30.
But after the discrepancy was pointed out by the Times/Herald, Tyson called Consumers for Smart Solar and instructed them to change their report to reflect the money came from a different group with a similar name: Let’s Preserve the American Dream Inc., which has no record of donating money in Florida before.
Tyson said Consumers for Smart Solar made a mistake in the way the reported the donation.
“Consumers for Smart Solar unfortunately reported the contribution from Let's Preserve the American Dream as coming from a PAC,” Tyson said. “That is incorrect.”
He said the donation came from a tax-exempt company he created with a similar name: Let’s Preserve the American Dream Inc. While the names are nearly identical, he said insisted the new company, which was officially named in February, is a “social welfare” organization that has a 501(c)4 designation, which allows it to not disclose who any of its donors are. If it were a political action committee, it would have to disclose the names.
The tactic partly mirrors what the other solar amendment supporters have done. Floridians for Solar Choice has received almost 90 percent of its nearly $1.3 million from one group: the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which promotes solar power initiatives throughout the southeastern United States.
But Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said while the vehicles are similar the goals are very different. He said Let’s Preserve the American Dream is simply a front group hiding more donations from utilities companies. He said he group uses the 501(c)4 designation as a way to protect their donors from potential conflict with power companies in Florida.
Which, if either, of the amendments will even be on the ballot is still in question. The Floridians for Solar Choice have received initial Florida Supreme Court approval for their ballot language, but still have more than 480,000 signatures to gather to get on the ballot. Consumers for Smart Solar have yet to get their amendment approved by the Supreme Court and still needs nearly 570,000 signatures to make the ballot.
Top 5 donors to Floridians for Solar Choice
1. $1.1 million from Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Knoxville, Tenn.
2. $50,000 from Barbara Stiefel, Coral Gables environmentalist
3. $25,000 from Infinite Energy, Gainesville.
4. $25,000 from Conservatives for Energy Freedom, Buford, Georgia consultants
5. $10,000 each from Williamson Automotive, a Miami car dealership and Leverette F. Lynn, a retired doctor from Miami.
Top 5 donors to Consumers for Smart Solar
1. $200,000 from Let's Preserve the American Dream Inc, a Tallahassee based company
2. $180,000 from Gulf Power, a northwest Florida utility company
3. $175,000 from Florida Power & Light, the state's largest utility company
4. $175,000 Tampa Electric Company
5. $160,000 Duke Energy