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Gov. Charlie Crist's Senate campaign reaps benefits from bundling of donations

The biggest check a donor can legally write to Gov. Charlie Crist's campaign for the U.S. Senate is for $2,400.

But Jacksonville-area lobbyist Marty Fiorentino, who represents AT&T, Fidelity National Financial and CSX Transportation, has delivered $139,250 to Crist. Tallahassee lobbyist James Eaton, whose health care industry clients face a major overhaul out of Washington, collected $50,700 for the Republican governor.

These lobbyists and other big campaign donors get around the $2,400 limit by hitting up their clients, friends and relatives for checks — a practice known as "bundling" that has become as traditional as bumper stickers. What's new is a federal law that requires candidates to identify federal lobbyists who bundle at least $16,000 — providing a window into Crist's record-setting campaign account.

"We believe that government transparency is an absolutely crucial element for people to know where money is flowing in government and for citizens to make informed decisions," said Dave Levinthal, a spokesman for the Center of Responsive Politics, a government watchdog group.

President Barack Obama pledged to reject money from federal lobbyists during his 2008 campaign in an effort to signal his independence from special interests.

The leading Democratic candidate for Senate, U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami, identified one lobbyist bundler in records filed last week. Clifton Porter, who represents a nationwide nursing home and hospice chain, collected $19,000 for the congressman who sits on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.

Meek spokesman Adam Sharon noted that he voted in favor of the campaign ethics law that included the new disclosure rules for lobbyists.

Former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio of Miami, who is challenging Crist for the Republican nomination, has not reported any major fundraising by federal lobbyists.

Crist — whose $4.3 million in donations from April to June led Senate candidates nationwide — was in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday at a fundraiser hosted by federal lobbyists for the second day in a row. "Join the winning team!'' reads the invitation to Tuesday's reception at the private Capitol Hill Club, which was co-hosted by lobbyists T.J. Petrizzo, Omar Franco and Pat Raffaniello.

Raffaniello, whose Web site touts his expertise in tax policy, said he's supporting Crist because of his political philosophy, not to gain access to the front-running candidate to replace Sen. Mel Martinez.

"I don't see a quid pro quo," Raffaniello said. "This is a race that's going to get to like $20 million, and I'm just doing a little part to help. I'm not getting anything out of it."

Fiorentino, a top Republican fundraiser who attended Crist's wedding last year, also said he doesn't expect any favors in return.

"I've supported my friend Charlie Crist for 15 years in every race he's ever run, and I'll support him another 15 years," Fiorentino said. "My experience is that the governor is going to do the right thing no matter what."

Eaton, the other lobbyist-bundler for Crist, could not be reached Tuesday.

Crist raised $4.3 million in the first 50 days of his campaign, more than doubling the record for a Senate candidate in Florida. Little is known about his contributors so far, since he retreated last week on an offer to provide a database of his donors to the press.

The Federal Election Commission is expected to post his fundraising report online this week.

Crist spokesman Dane Eagle issued a written statement in response to a request for an interview about lobbyists raising money for the campaign. "As always, we are very pleased and grateful for the tremendous outpouring of support that Gov. Crist has been able to generate," he said.

Other Democrats running for the open Senate seat include U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown of Jacksonville and North Miami Mayor Kevin Burns. Neither has reported any lobbyist bundlers.

Crist disapproves of Sotomayor

Gov. Charlie Crist, whose embrace of President Barack Obama's stimulus plan cost him support among some conservative Republicans, echoed their objections to Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor in a statement Tuesday.

Crist had brushed off questions about Sotomayor's nomination for weeks, drawing criticism from his opponents in the Senate race. Sen. Mel Martinez, the Republican whose retirement in 2010 opened the door for Crist, said last week that he supports Sotomayor.

Without warning, Crist took a stand on her nomination.

"I have strong concerns that Judge Sotomayor would not strictly and objectively construe the constitution and lacks respect for the fundamental right to keep and bear arms," Crist said.

Crist is far ahead in polls and fundraising, but Republican rival Marco Rubio has found scattered support among party activists who lean conservative.

Gov. Charlie Crist's Senate campaign reaps benefits from bundling of donations 07/21/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 31, 2009 5:00pm]
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