Thursday, February 22, 2018
Politics

Lawmakers agree on legislation to crack down on fraud by Florida charities

TALLAHASSEE — The Senate and House struck agreement Tuesday on legislation to crack down on fraud by Florida charities after agreeing to drop a proposed $50 application fee for criminal background checks on solicitors.

Instead, taxpayers will pay for the background checks.

The legislation is the most significant tightening of the laws overseeing charitable solicitations in Florida in two decades and is a rare case of increased government regulation by a pro-business, free market-oriented Republican Legislature.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam has called Florida "a destination of choice for hucksters," and lawmakers embraced his call for new laws after reading an investigation by the Tampa Bay Times and the Center for Investigative Reporting called "America's Worst Charities," which exposed rogue charities that pocketed millions of dollars in profits under the pretense of raising money for veterans or sick children.

The legislation adds new reporting requirements for charities and bans them from Florida if they've been cited for fraud or other crimes in other states. Charities that raise more than $500,000 a year must have their financial statements reviewed by auditors and charities that collect more than $1 million must be audited.

Charities that raise $100,000 in response to a disaster, such as a hurricane, tornado or wildfires, must file quarterly reports with the state.

"It adds a lot of transparency and accountability," said Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, sponsor of the House bill. "It holds people accountable who are acting inappropriately. The news stories were instrumental in breaking open the issue."

The House version (HB 629) included a $50 individual application fee, but Boyd said Gov. Rick Scott's office raised objections to the new fee, so it was taken out when the bill came up on the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon.

"I personally felt that the fees were reasonable, and we have fees attached to a lot of other business services in Florida," Boyd said. "But certainly if he felt there was a need to take it out for the good of the cause, I support that, because the bottom line is that we get our hands around the issues that have been created by these rogue charities."

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, sponsor of the Senate bill, said that throughout the session, lawmakers have broadly tried to prevent new fees on consumers from being attached to any bills. "It's an ongoing concern," Brandes said.

The revised bill allocates about $416,000 from the state treasury to hire three full-time employees in Putnam's Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to oversee the checks, which include mandatory registration and fingerprinting for people who work for telemarketing firms hired by charities to raise money.

Brandes emphasized that the background checks do not apply to people who serve without pay as volunteer fundraisers for charities.

The Senate is expected to pass the revised bill today and will send it for a final vote in the House, which will send it to Scott's desk.

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