TAMPA — Lawton "Bud" Chiles brought his bid for governor to a leafy Tampa neighborhood Thursday and condemned the influence of special interest groups that bankroll negative TV ads under the banner of innocent-sounding committees.
Chiles chose to make his point at the Hyde Park home of an accounting firm that handles the paperwork for dozens of those committees, nearly all of them working to elect or defeat Republican candidates. The firm, Robert Watkins & Company, specializes in helping the groups comply with election and tax laws.
The groups have names like "Florida Liberty Fund" and "Prosperity Florida." Chiles counted $22-million in donations over several years from an array of business interests, from sugar to tobacco to utilities, and he gathered available information on the state elections website, http://www.dos.state.fl.us/.
"What special interests would funnel $22-million, and why can't they give it in the names of their own corporations? What are they hiding?" Chiles asked, looking into five TV news cameras. "If we're going to be a government for the people and by the people and not the special interests, this has to stop."
Chiles proposed that any group contributing more than $500 to one of the committees should be forced to identify itself, so that TV viewers know who's paying for the message. "Stand by your ad," he said.
The underdog former Democrat said the committees can accept donations of any amount, which drives up the costs of campaigns and drives out the voice of the small-dollar donors. He called the practice of shuttling large sums between committees the political equivalent of "money laundering."
"This is wrong. This is hurting our democracy. This is hurting our ability to make Florida better for our children," Chiles said. "We've got to get back to a government we can trust."
Accountant Nancy Watkins said the committees comply with state and federal laws and fully disclose their finances.
"I'm very involved in the political process, but I also believe in the public's right and need to know this information, so they can make fully informed decisions," Watkins said. "They report every penny, in and out."
Watkins said Chiles' insinuation that the committees operate secretly is "false and misleading and just plain wrong," and it is the news media's responsibility to connect the dots and tell voters who's behind the nebulous-sounding committees.
Watkins is known as a stickler for strict compliance with the laws. She welcomed reporters into her office and spent 45 minutes answering questions, and said the state Division of Elections should be more aggressive in fulfilling its legal responsibility to refer any reporting irregularities to the Florida Elections Commission.
The groups under attack by Chiles are known under state law as electioneering communication organizations or ECOs. Under federal law they are known as 527 committees after a section of the IRS code. They have proliferated in the past decade in Florida.
They were a significant force in the just-ended Republican primary for governor between Rick Scott and Bill McCollum in which both sides spent a combined $70-million. They are sure to play a powerful role in the upcoming general election cycle.
Chiles, 57, an independent candidate and son of a former Democratic governor, is running against Scott and Democrat Alex Sink, the state's chief financial officer. His campaign is based largely on the idea that the two parties are corruptly compromised by special interest money.
In his press conference on the street, Chiles said he phoned McCollum after his Tuesday night defeat and thanked the state attorney general for his long service, calling him "a good American and a good Floridian."
But in the primary, McCollum was the No 1 beneficiary of the special interested funded committees Chiles was railing against. "I'm not saying I agree with him on everything," Chiles said. "I'm here to attack the system that both of my opponents are caught up in."
Chiles has been under pressure from Democrats to withdraw from the race, but he said he's staying in, will name a running mate early next week, and has accepted three invitations to debate his two opponents. "I am absolutely in this race to win," Chiles said. "People are looking for an alternative."