Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Politics

Soft money, no names

TALLAHASSEE

Because every state legislator has to seek re-election this fall, dozens of political committees are ramping up for a political season of big spending.

The soft money accounts, including now-infamous political action committees, will spend millions of dollars on attack ads and other efforts to sway voters. But don't expect to know much about who is behind the messages and why. Although political committees must disclose some information, unwinding the flow of donated money and who is behind it can be virtually impossible.

Consider Pat Bainter and the millions he has directed through his committees.

Bainter, 52, is the son of Republican former state Rep. Stan Bainter and is considered by some to be among the most powerful political consultants in the state. From his offices in Gainesville, he has run at least a half-dozen committees that have raised more than $14 million for Florida political campaigns in recent years.

Bainter's committees funded an attack ad campaign against Gov. Rick Scott when he ran in 2010. The money, it turns out, came in part from U.S. Sugar, the Florida Republican Party and a handful of other political committees — donors who were not disclosed until after the election.

Bainter has already created two committees that are buying ads for 2012 legislative races. One of them, Liberty Foundation of Florida, has collected more than $1.6 million from Florida Conservative Majority, a committee operated by Republican state Sens. Don Gaetz, Andy Gardiner and Joe Negron. Liberty Foundation is currently pouring money into ads for Republican former state Rep. Aaron Bean in a Jacksonville Senate race that could well determine a bitter race for the presidency between Negron and Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.

The Tampa Bay Times repeatedly asked Bainter about his fundraising.

His emailed response: "It has been our company policy for at least the last 10 years not to do on- or off-record interviews."

Public filings required by the state don't offer much help.

State law requires people who form political action committees to name a treasurer, chairman and registered agent. But some committees draft obscure individuals to fill those roles so it can't be tracked back to more public figures.

"A lot of times the treasurer is just a name, basically a shill," said veteran elections lawyer John French, who chairs Gov. Scott's political committee and helped write the state's election laws in the 1970s.

In Bainter's case, Richard Cole is the registered agent and only officer listed for Truth Matters, one of the committees that paid for attacks on Scott in 2010.

Cole is a 26-year-old Gainesville resident registered to vote with no party affiliation. He is not listed as a contributor or payee in Florida campaign records and refused to discuss his relationship to the political committees.

Contacted at his home in Gainesville, Cole hung up on a reporter.

Even when the state has tried to bring more accountability to PACs, it hasn't always worked.

In 2005, legislators passed a law requiring political committees and their registered agents to use street addresses when they file paperwork with the State Division of Elections. The reform came in response to 2004 attack ads paid for by political committees that registered under anonymous post office boxes.

Today, some PACs, including Bainter's, rent mailboxes at UPS stores or other mail drop businesses that provide a street address but obscure the identity of the recipient.

During the 2010 election, Bainter ran campaigns through four committees that used 382 NE 191st St., Miami, as a mailing address. The address belongs to Baron Messenger Service, a courier company that forwards mail to clients.

It is also the listed address for Absum LLC and FRML LLC, two vendors paid by political committees Bainter advises and that have earned more than $400,000 for research and consulting since 2010.

Some political consultants believe registering under a mail drop business address is an effort to skirt the state's accountability measures.

"The object of the game is to make it hard for you to report it. You can't say exactly where the money came from and you'll never know for sure who paid for it," says David Ramba, a Tallahassee lobbyist and political consultant who advises about 40 political committees.

The system has grown so complex that some political consultants rely on businesses like Contribution Link, a computer analysis company owned by Brecht Heuchan, a former legislative staffer and lobbyist who tracks money given to committees for clients who want help analyzing contributions and spending.

Heuchan notes that more than 900 committees are active for 2012 Florida campaigns. They have already collected more than $140 million.

Committees run by politicians and special interest often collect money, then pass it on to other committees that move it to consultants who craft attack ads. The movement obscures who is really paying for the ads, at least until after an election.

Tony Fabrizio, Gov. Scott's political consultant, complained that even back in 2010 fundraising committees had become a "whole Laundromat operating with wash and spin laundering of all kinds of money."

Today, the committees provide an even greater portion of campaign funding.

Many have been created by legislators who use them to curry political favor by transferring money to other elected officials who need it. Some lawmakers have as many as five different fundraising committees, and a number of former lawmakers have retained committees to raise money for other campaigns.

Gift laws adopted in 2005 make it illegal for lawmakers to accept a cup of coffee from lobbyists and the businesses who hire them but there is no limit on the campaign cash donated to their committees.

"The system has reached a point where Floridians can no longer determine who gave it, who got it and what they are doing with it," said Tom Slade, chairman of the Florida GOP in the 1990s. "It is not good for politics and it's been a handicap for those who wish for good government out of their political party. People don't give those sums of money and not expect something for it."

Times researchers Connie Humburg and Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Times senior correspondent Lucy Morgan can be reached at [email protected]

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