TALLAHASSEE — When state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, held a fundraiser to promote his bid for Senate president, the invitation was straight and to the point: "No maximum amount."
Hundreds of people came to Ruth Eckerd Hall on May 16 with checks to the Florida Leadership Fund. Created and controlled by Latvala, the fund has grown to nearly $1 million in just a few months.
"It's a self-defense mechanism for me," says Latvala, whose strategy to be Senate president in 2016 has hit resistance from some conservative Republican senators. "I have to have a way of helping my friends and people who are committed to me to be president."
Latvala is one of dozens of state lawmakers taking advantage of a legal loophole that allows them to raise and spend millions from special interests, even though a ban on lobbyist gifts prevents them from accepting a cup of coffee from a lobbyist. Any lawmaker or candidate for the Legislature can operate a fund much like a personal bank account — after notifying the state in writing.
Even members of Congress cannot take unlimited checks from the interests they oversee.
"Everyone seems to have one nowadays and they are rife with potential problems," says lawyer Mark Herron, an election-law expert who sets up the funds for Democrats. "It creates a real appearance of impropriety when people get many, many thousands of dollars from people they're supposed to be regulating."
The campaign funds, known as CCEs or committees of continuous existence or 527s in reference to part of the IRS code, have existed for years, but are multiplying — and more than 100 now exist. Another 30 lawmakers have recently created them so they can rake in four- and five-figure checks from influential donors such as Blue Cross Blue Shield, U.S. Sugar, Progress Energy, Disney, Florida Power & Light and the Geo Group, a for-profit prison operator.
The money is often funneled to shadowy political groups and spent on hard-hitting ads and mailers in legislative races.
Disney Worldwide Services gave $130,000 to Protect Our Liberty, a fund controlled by six Republican senators including Andy Gardiner of Orlando, Joe Negron of Stuart and Anitere Flores of Miami. Disney's agenda includes opposition to expanded gambling, which it sees as bad for Florida's image as a family friendly tourist destination.
Another leading donor to lawmakers' funds is Automated HealthCare Solutions, a Broward-based medical software company that repackages drugs for doctors to distribute to patients with on-the-job injuries. For years, business groups have tried to break the company's grip, claiming it drives up workers' compensation costs, but Automated's lobbying team killed a bill in the Senate in 2012.
Automated HealthCare is a major donor to the Republican Party and to lawmaker-controlled CCEs. It recently sent $25,000 to Florida Forward, a fund controlled by Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity, who's slated to become House speaker in 2016.
Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who will be Senate president in November, has raised $754,000 through the Florida Conservative Majority fund, along with Sens. Gardiner and Negron. Another $1.9 million in Republican Party money has passed through Gaetz's fund to help Gaetz allies in Republican Senate primaries including Tom Lee, a Senate candidate in Hillsborough.
A big chunk of the Gaetz money has flowed to an electioneering group, Liberty Foundation of Florida, which has run ads touting Lee as a pro-family Republican.
"It's destructive to the political process," said Lee's Republican opponent, Rep. Rachel Burgin, R-Riverview. "They're collecting all this money from Republican donors, and they're using it against a conservative Republican to defeat her."
While dozens of citizens wrote small checks to Latvala's fund, much of the money has come in bursts of $5,000 and $10,000 from groups with a stake in legislation, such as racetracks, unions, insurers, hospitals and doctors — in some cases, special interests on opposite sides of the same issue.
"Money has never influenced what I've done in the Senate, and it's not going to start now," says Latvala, re-elected in 2010 after previously serving for eight years.
A statewide firefighters' PAC gave $32,000 to Latvala's fund, and the AFL-CIO gave $25,000. So did Florida Crystals, a sugar grower, and Automated HealthCare Solutions. Latvala said donors support him because his Senate would be "deliberate, open and transparent to everybody."
Latvala recently transferred $100,000 from his fund to the Committee to Protect Florida, an electioneering group that sent leaflets to GOP voters criticizing state Senate candidate Jeff Brandes' voting record on insurance issues. Latvala supports Jim Frishe, Brandes' rival in the Aug. 14 Republican primary.
By law, any legislator who solicits money for a fund must register with the state, and every fund must have a website and post donations within five days. That level of disclosure is stronger than for political parties and other political committees, like PACs, which usually report totals every three months.
Lobbyists routinely write checks of $2,500 or $5,000 to the lawmakers' funds, but they don't necessarily like it.
"The proliferation of legislator-controlled (funds) has made political fundraising a game limited to the really big companies and associations," says lobbyist Bob Levy of Miami.
Democrats, including Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston, proposed eliminating CCEs in 2006. Rich, who plans to run for governor in 2014, now has her own fund, Citizens for a Progressive Florida, which has raised $93,000.
That includes $20,000 from Akerman Senterfitt, a law firm that lobbies the Legislature; $20,000 from Southern Wine & Spirits, a Miramar liquor distributor; and $10,000 from South Florida gambling interests.
"They're popping up like mushrooms," attorney Herron says.
Times/Herald staff writer Brittany Alana Davis contributed to this report.