TALLAHASSEE — A new shadow political group emerged in the governor's race this week with a nasty attack on Republican front-runner Rick Scott.
The statewide television advertisement produced by the Florida First Initiative, a federal 527 organization, accuses Scott's former hospital chain of refusing care to poor and dying patients.
The campaign of his chief rival, Attorney General Bill McCollum, denied involvement.
But new documents obtained Monday by the Times/Herald suggest McCollum is using his name to solicit contributions to the political group and possibly skirting state election laws.
"Bill McCollum asked that I forward this information to you," states one e-mail soliciting money for the Florida First Initiative, which includes the money-wiring number to the group's account at M&S Bank in Gainesville.
An attached memorandum from McCollum campaign attorneys notes that under federal law "there are no limits to the amount of money that the organization may accept or spend."
The group's donors and expenses are unknown because it won't file a federal disclosure for another month and state law doesn't require it to register with the Florida Division of Elections until nearer to the election.
But state law suggests McCollum might need to file a disclosure if he directly or indirectly solicited contributions for a federal 527 group, so-called by its designation in the IRS tax code.
A review of state records shows McCollum, who prides himself on public openness, never filed the paperwork required under the law.
"The way I read the law, any legislator is required to do the disclosure thing," said John French, an elections law expert who works for Scott.
McCollum's campaign said the he didn't need to file the form because he did not control the organization.
McCollum's spokeswoman wouldn't give an explanation about his involvement with the group except to say it's "not run by our campaign."
"We are not surprised by any number of organizations and individuals taking issue with Rick Scott's questionable history," said Kristy Campbell.
The connections, though, are numerous. McCollum's finance director, Carrie O'Rouke, is involved in soliciting money for the group and the two entities share the same TV ad producer and media buyer.
It's the second time this month a secretive group with ties to McCollum emerged to attack Scott, who came from nowhere to take a 13-point lead in the GOP primary race, according to a poll released last week.
Federal records list Alachua County GOP Chairman Stafford Jones, a loyal McCollum supporter, as the group's contact. Reached by phone, he hung up on a reporter.
Scott's campaign spokeswoman criticized the way McCollum is hiding his involvement in the attacks.
"Bill McCollum has sunk to a new low even for a career politician," Jennifer Baker said. "The outrageously false allegations are pathetic, and Bill McCollum should be embarrassed to be associated with such trash."
The 30-second advertisement makes numerous allegations against Scott's hospital chain, Columbia/HCA, for profiting from mistreatment. The most inflammatory claim suggests one of the hospitals in 1997 "turned away a poor man and left him to die outside their door."
Scott's campaign said the man was treated and released, and after his death the emergency room physician was suspended. Baker added that it's ridiculous to suggest Scott played a role in the incident, and noted the Las Vegas hospital in question provided $8 million worth of uncompensated care the same year.
Scott's campaign — which has spent at least $15 million on its own advertising — responded with a negative advertisement against McCollum.
The spot labels McCollum "a career politician," and suggests he is responsible for the mortgage crisis. It notes his votes in Congress and efforts as a lobbyist to loosen bank loan regulations.
And it features a toppling circle of dominos.
John Frank can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.