Former state Sen. Jack Latvala announced this week that he has begun the process of returning half of the $1 million raised for his failed campaign for governor.
But while it's virtually unprecedented for a candidate for governor to return money to nearly all 1,288 of his contributors, even donors who didn't ask for the money back, Latvala is doing what politicians have been doing in Florida for years — retaining his political committee even after his campaign has been dismantled to buy influence, contribute to campaigns and finance expenses under Florida's loose campaign-finance laws.
Latvala's Florida Leadership Committee had a balance of about $4 million on Jan. 31 and, according to reports filed with the Florida Division of Elections, he continues to use it to pay for expenses, consultants and staff.
"That committee has been around much longer than the gov race," Latvala said in a text message to the Times/Herald. "Gave $ to over 100 candidates last cycle. Separate issue. TBD."
Latvala resigned Jan. 5 after a Senate investigator found probable cause that he was guilty of sexual harassment and referred the case to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate potential criminal misconduct that he traded sexual intimacy with a lobbyist for legislative favors.
He has since used $240,000 of the nearly $1 million he raised in his bid to become governor to pay Tallahassee attorney Steven R. Andrews for his legal defense. Some of the contributors to his political committee have suggested he should return the money.
"As a result of Senator Latvala's resignation, Duke Energy requested the company's contributions either be donated to charity or returned, so the company could donate the funds to charity," said Peveeta Persaud, spokesperson for Duke Energy, which gave more than $4,600 to the political committee.
Latvala doesn't have to, according to Florida law. Contributors donate if they agree with the mission of the committee and, as with many of the hundreds of political committees in Florida, the mission of the Florida Leadership Committee is broad: "to promote the interests of its members via campaigns and political outreach."
As long as Latvala remains a candidate he has to report his committee expenses within days at an online website. As soon as Latvala withdraws his campaign, he will be allowed to keep the committee and report its expenditures only monthly. It's the same loophole used by dozens of former lawmakers, including former House Speaker Steve Crisafulli and former Senate President Mike Haridopolos, who also have political committees that continue to spend money.
The Times/Herald asked several donors if they had asked for the money from Latvala's committee to be returned, if they supported the use of political funds for Latvala's legal defense, and if they think donors should hold candidates accountable for how they spend their contributions. Those who responded were universal in their view that they had little hope of influencing how the candidates spend the money.
"We can't legally direct how funds are controlled once a contribution is made," said Edie Ousley, spokesperson for the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which gave about $6,000 to Latvala's committee and has not asked for the money to be returned.
The same holds for donors to other political committees.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran, for example, is not a candidate for governor but has used his political committee, Watchdog PC, to run a $500,000 television ad intended to stoke fear about immigration. Even donors who said they didn't like the ad said that once the check was cut, they had little expectation they will have any influence over it.
"While Richard is a bit more conservative, on trial lawyer issues, he is pro-access to the courts," said Neal Roth, lawyer with the Miami law firm of Grossman, Roth, Yaffa, Cohen, P.A. which has donated $135,000 to Corcoran's committee. "While I may not like an ad, I didn't attach conditions to our contribution and, as long as what they are doing adheres to state election law, the donors can't hold anyone accountable."
Norman Braman, the South Florida auto dealer who gave $196,000 to Corcoran's committee, said that while he believes the campaign finance laws "should be tightened in some fashion," what Latvala is doing by retaining his committee is "nothing new." He added that it would be "naive" to expect a donor to influence a campaign's spending. "If you want to have a say, organize your own committee," he said.
Other donors avoided answering the questions.
Tom Feeney, president of the business lobbying group Associated Industries of Florida, which gave Corcoran's political committee $335,000 and Latvala's $5,000, wouldn't comment.
Clewiston-based United States Sugar Co., which gave Corcoran $125,000 and Latvala $95,000, didn't respond to questions about whether it supported Corcoran's ad or approved of Latvala's expenses.
Paul Tudor Jones, who has been one of the largest benefactors to the Everglades Foundation, gave $50,000 to Corcoran's political committee and $25,000 to Latvala's but also wouldn't comment.
"The Jones family has worked to help protect the Everglades for more than 25 years," said Stu Loeser, spokesperson for the Jones Family. They've long supported Democrats and Republicans alike who have defended the Everglades and will continue to do so."
Since December, Latvala's political committee spent about $56,000, primarily on consultants and staff, including $6,100 for California political consultant Fred Davis, who advertises the fact that his firm, Strategic Perception Inc., uses "creativity, humor and emotion to win tough elections, even in years when Republicans are not favored."
Latvala produced a receipt Tuesday that showed $532 paid by his committee in January to the Avila Country Club in Tampa for "catering" was to cover the expense of a fundraiser in October. He also showed that while the committee reimbursed him in December for dinners at Capital Grille in Miami, Lago Mar Beach Resort in Fort Lauderdale and Villa Bellini in Clearwater, the expenses were incurred in September.