Buying the office or selling out? Alex Sink and Rick Scott battle over money in politics

TALLAHASSEE — Democrat Alex Sink says her Republican rival, Rick Scott, is trying to buy the governor's office with tainted money. Scott's campaign shoots back that Sink has already sold out to liberal special interests.

The fight over campaign spending comes as polls show the two are locked in a neck-and-neck race heading into the final stretch of the race.

Sink said the tight polls between the two are a reflection of the record spending from Scott, a Naples businessman who has burned through $51 million of his own money trying to win a job that pays $130,273 per year.

"He's trying to buy the election," Sink told the St. Petersburg Times editorial board.

But Sink has amassed a small fortune for her own campaign through more traditional sources for statewide candidates: the special interests that do business with the state.

"Alex Sink likes to accuse Rick Scott of trying to buy public office, but the truth is that she is already owned by leftist special interests like the unions and the trial lawyers," Scott spokesman Joe Kildea said.

In an early TV ad for her campaign, Sink said this about her four years in Tallahassee as the state's elected chief financial officer: "The partisanship and special interests are even worse than you think. And I'm fed up with it."

But campaign finance reports show her bid for governor largely is being paid for by the Florida Democratic Party and special interests like bankers, insurers and the health care industry.

In her 2006 campaign, Sink criticized her GOP opponent, Tom Lee, for paying for his TV ads with money from the Republican Party of Florida, which, like the Democratic Party, does not have to disclose donors as regularly as candidates.

"This is the ultimate in non-transparency," Sink told the Tampa Tribune at the time.

Four years later, the Florida Democratic Party has paid $4.2 million of Sink's campaign expenses, such as staff, consultants and direct mail advertising.

The party has spent another $9 million on TV ads for Sink, according to reports from ad buyers.

Sink said the money is necessary to defeat Scott.

"I just refuse to let Rick Scott hijack my state without a fight," Sink said.

Sink has pushed for more rigorous reporting for the state parties and said she would do so again as governor.

Both Sink and Scott declined to identify the donors they contacted to raise money for their party organizations.

In addition to party money, Sink, like Scott, has opened her own electioneering committee. The committees let the candidates avoid the strict $500 contribution limit on their personal campaigns.

A report released Wednesday showed Sink's committee received $10,000 from a company tied to Republican John Sykes, the founder of a Tampa call center that was sued by the state while Sink was a board member. The company, Hyde Park Equity Investments LLC, also gave $25,000 to the Florida Democratic Party in August.

The call center operator, Sykes Enterprises, was sued in 2000 by the Florida State Board of Administration and others, claiming they "knowingly inflated" financial information. Sink, a member of the company's audit committee, was not named in the lawsuit, which was eventually settled for $30 million.

Sink told the Times/Herald that she was unaware the revenues were exaggerated so that the company could borrow against its stock to buy more companies.

Sink's political committee, called Let's Hold Them Accountable!, has raised $103,000, including $99,000 in a dozen donations since Sept. 24.

Scott's committee, called Let's Get to Work, has collected more than $14 million, including $11 million from Scott's family trusts and $100,000 from Richard Rainwater, who, along with Scott, founded the Columbia/HCA hospital chain. That's the company that forced Scott to resign during a Medicare fraud investigation that ended in $1.7 billion in fines against the company.

For Sink's own campaign account, at least $1.6 million so far has come from lawyers and lobbyists, state records show.

Insurers have given at least $335,000 to Sink; the banking and finance industries, $332,000; the health care sector, $185,000; and labor unions, $38,000.

Sink, however, points to the thousands of small donations that have poured in from working Floridians.

"I have more than 50,000 contributions to my campaign," Sink said in an interview. "These are people who believe in me, believe in my message.

"I call them my investors," she said. "They are investing in my agenda."

Scott, who has said he would not take a state salary if he wins in November, has also continued to spend his own money. State records show he has put $2.2 million of his own cash into the race since the primary ended.

Scott said spending his own money means he will be unencumbered by potential political paybacks if he makes it to Tallahassee.

Since winning the GOP nomination, Scott has started raising money for the state party from some of the same special interests he eschewed from the campaign trail.

In recent weeks, Scott has attended fundraisers hosted by Associated Industries of Florida, Florida Crystals and U.S. Sugar.

After positioning himself as the political outsider during the primary, he will attend a $10,000-per-head fundraiser this month in Naples with Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a potential GOP presidential candidate.

"As long as they believe in what I believe in, that's fine," Scott said.

Times/Herald reporters Mary Ellen Klas and Steve Bousquet contributed to this story. Michael C. Bender can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or mbender@sptimes.com.

Buying the office or selling out? Alex Sink and Rick Scott battle over money in politics 10/06/10 [Last modified: Thursday, October 7, 2010 8:12am]

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