Saturday, February 24, 2018
Politics

DeWitt: The absurd idea of Schenck as campaign reformer

Rep. Rob Schenck, cleaning up the state's filthy campaign finance system.

Rob Schenck, reformer.

Stunning, absurd, a flat-out joke — but, on its face, true.

Schenck's bill on this issue, HB 569, passed the House of Representatives in March and the Senate last week.

You might have figured that this has to be sham — Tallahassee money addicts making a show of cutting off their supply — which it pretty much is.

But you should have known that as soon as House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, picked Schenck as the leader of campaign finance reform.

Because Schenck's main value in this debate is to show how bloated and unjust the system is. If Weatherford really cared about changing the way lawmakers raise and spend money, he would have used Schenck, a Spring Hill Republican, as an example of how it had gone wrong.

Let's start with the sheer volumes of cash.

Schenck's regular campaign account for last year's election stockpiled $276,000 in cash, almost none of it from grateful folks in his home district, almost all of it from political and corporate interests.

He also had a Committee of Continuous Existence, or CCE, one of those slush funds you've heard about, called Conservatives for a Better Tomorrow.

For most of the time Schenck ran it (he pulled out in January) he served as chairman of the House Health and Human Services Committee, meaning he was able to accumulate a lot of slush — $220,750, most of it from companies or political organizations in the medical field.

One of the largest recipients of money from this fund was Mike Schenck, Rob Schenck's college-age cousin, who served as a "grass roots sort of campaign guy for me," Rob Schenck told Mary Ellen Klas, of the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau, in an interview earlier this month.

No, he wrote later in an email, responding to followup questions: "I misspoke."

"(Mike Schenck's) responsibilities in that capacity were limited to managing the CCE's resources."

Better Tomorrow documents, filed with the state Division of Elections, give yet another explanation: "consulting." So all we really know is that the CCE paid Mike Schenck more than $12,000.

But this isn't the biggest concern about the way Schenck spent money from the various pots accessible to powerful lawmakers.

No, it's his relationship with Shawn Foster, a guy with many titles.

He's a lobbyist with the conservative Southern Strategy Group, an officer in a company with Schenck (a barely active one, both of them said) called Campaign Access LLC, a consultant doing business as Sunrise Consulting, and — it's hard to think of how else to put this — a crony of Schenck's.

He received even more money from Better Tomorrow than Cousin Mike, $14,236.

More precisely, Foster received this money from his wife, Teresa, who is the fund's treasurer and secretary. Picture her sliding him a check across the breakfast table in their Pasco County home, which is the committee's registered address, and consider that this kind of labor isn't free; the fund paid her $2,150 for her work as treasurer.

Chump change, you might say, and by Tallahassee standards it is. But $198,000 is not.

That's the amount Shawn Foster received from Schenck's campaign account, mostly for advertising. And there's no doubt he did this job and did it well.

Schenck's Democratic opponent, Rose Rocco — who, by the way, raised a total of less than $8,000 — was mauled by a mixed-breed dog late in the campaign, and that wasn't half as brutal as some of Foster's mailed-out attack ads.

And there's one more bonus from Schenck to the Foster family, the cherry on top of a vast, tub-sized sundae. Shawn Foster's son, Christian, is his new legislative aide.

You can imagine Foster might feel indebted to Schenck, who has the power to distribute money but not much of his own.

Schenck recently took a job with a property management company, he told Klas. But before that, according to public records, he lived on — and paid alimony and child support from — his $29,697 legislative salary.

This, to be clear, is not evidence of corruption, just a very good recipe for it. Both Foster and Schenck say they haven't broken any rules, and I can't see that they have.

It's also a symptom of bigger, national realities that we can't expect statewide reform to address.

But we should expect a sincere effort. We should hold Schenck, who has a reputation as a very guarded politician, to the un-Schenck-like promise he made last month — that his plan would bring "transparency and accountability (to) Florida's campaign finance system."

His bill does, in fact, eliminate CCEs. But it replaces them with another kind of fund that will have slightly stricter limits on how special interest money can be spent but the same power to collect it in unlimited chunks. The bill, if it becomes law, would also dramatically raise the caps on standard campaign contributions.

Overall, the consensus seems to be that not much has changed.

Neither has Schenck, despite his talk about the need for public scrutiny. When Klas asked him the obvious question, whether he had ever used the committee to pay his "expenses or other needs," he was offended.

His reply: "Are you seriously asking that question?"

Schenck calling for accountability and transparency in campaign financing? Yes, it is a joke.

Follow Dan DeWitt on Twitter: @ddewitttimes

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