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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Seven lawmakers report political donations not allowed during special session



When the Legislature is in session, members of the House and Senate are prohibited from raising money for their campaigns.

Yet seven members of the Florida House reported campaign contributions totaling $30,600 during the last two weeks of October — when lawmakers convened a special session to redraw Senate district lines.

After the Times/Herald called five of them asking for explanations, several of the representatives pointed to clerical errors and promised to file corrected records with the state. Two have not yet returned our calls.

* Rep. Jay Fant, R-Jacksonville, reported 20 donations totaling $13,450 on Oct. 21, two days after special session began. Among the big donors: the Florida Medical Association, Florida East Coast Industries and a group representing certified public accountants.

House rules ban soliciting or accepting campaign funds during session. But lawmakers are allowed to deposit checks they received before session began, as long as it is within five business days of the donation’s receipt. It is therefore possible that Fant deposited checks that he had been given at a fundraiser several days prior.

That would hardly be surprising. Lawmakers often pack last-minute fundraisers into the moments before a session begins.

On Oct. 19, the day the special session began, 13 members of the Legislature claimed $41,630 in donations. That’s okay as long as the money changed hands before noon, when the House and Senate were officially called into session. Campaign finance records kept by the state do not show what time a donation was received.

Fant did not respond to several attempts to contact his office.

* Rep. Mike La Rosa, R-St. Cloud, reported 16 contributions totaling $12,250 on Oct. 26, including money from Walgreens, the Florida Transportation Builders' Association and the Palm Beach Kennel Club.

* Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo, reported $3,500 from four contributions including the Palm Beach Kennel Club and FTBA.

Raschein and La Rosa both said they collected checks on Oct. 19 before session officially began, as well, and that their campaign treasurers reported the dates that they deposited the checks, not the date they received them.

“I had some meetings that morning,” La Rosa said.

In both cases, they were deposited within the five-business-day window allowed under law.

* Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover, reported a $500 check from the Florida Leadership Committee, a political committee controlled by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.

Records maintained by Latvala’s political committee show that the $500 check to Spano was written on Oct. 9, almost three weeks before Spano reported the contribution on Oct. 27.

Messages left at Spano’s office were not returned.

Latvala said he cut the check well in advance of special session and gave it to his son, Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, to pass along to Spano.

“If he deposited it during special session, that’s on him,” Latvala said.

* Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, reported two $250 in-kind contributions from Amanda Horne and John Horne on Oct. 28.

Boyd said the donations were food for a fundraiser he had in September, although they were reported in his October filing.

* Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, reported a $250 donation from Miami businessman Stanley Tate on Oct. 30.

Artiles said he would return the check, which he said was accepted by his accountant. Neither Tate nor the accountant did not know about the special session, Artiles said. The check was dated Oct. 15, when Artiles had a fundraising event.

“Sometimes those checks are sent directly to my CPA, to the address of my CPA,” he said.

* Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, reported a $150 check from Rivolta Yachts. He has since corrected his records, which wrongly showed the check from Oct. 28 — during special session — that was received Oct. 18 — before session.

Rules against fundraising are strict, but they’re important, says Ben Wilcox, research director of watchdog group Integrity Florida.

“It’s an attempt to at least do away with the appearance of pay to play,” he said. “At a time when lawmakers are making laws, it attempts to shield them from the most basic conflict of interest where you’re taking money at the same time that you’re making laws that affect people.”

The Republican Party of Florida’s Sunshine Summit, taking place this weekend in Orlando was rescheduled earlier this year so RPOF Chairman Blaise Ingoglia, a sitting House member from Spring Hill, could take part in the fundraising.

Rules ban any sitting lawmaker from asking for donations or accepting money, even if they didn’t solicit the funds themselves. The only exception is in the Senate, where lawmakers can attend previously scheduled fundraisers during a special session, as long as the event was announced before the dates of a special session are finalized.

When a lawmaker breaks those rules, he or she becomes subject to ethics violations in the House or Senate. It isn’t technically against state law, but Wilcox said that legislative leaders’ willingness to keep it in the self-imposed rules could be even more significant.

“By putting it in the rules, that is a pretty powerful statement, actually,” Wilcox said. “You don’t want your members breaking the rules."

[Last modified: Friday, November 13, 2015 4:39pm]


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