In a year when Florida's electoral landscape is awash in unprecedented amounts of money, Pinellas County is seeing a surge in spending by shadowy political groups with an interest in local campaigns.
At least four so-called Electioneering Communications Organizations, or ECOs, have paid for advertising in 2012 county races. They range from a Tallahassee organization with a seven-figure war chest to Pinellas County's first homegrown ECO, a Palm Harbor-based group supporting Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.
The groups' incursions into local races for sheriff, School Board and County Commission are creating concerns here about their influence on the democratic process. While they have been active for years in state politics, ECOs have mostly ignored elections for county offices.
Critics say that the organizations do candidates' dirty work by funding attack ads and that their impenetrable structure conceals special interests at work behind the scenes. ECOs spending money in Pinellas have drawn cash directly or indirectly from prison-building companies, school voucher activists, business lobbyists, trial lawyers and other political committees, some affiliated with powerful politicians.
These players' involvement is not apparent, however, without laboriously tracing streams of money through campaign finance records. Meanwhile, the political operatives who manage the groups are tight-lipped about what stake they might have in the outcome of county races.
"It makes a mockery of campaign finance laws, and it lets people evade responsibility for their communications," said Democrat Charlie Justice, a former state senator running for Pinellas County Commission who was targeted in recent attack ads sent out by an ECO based in Tallahassee. "We don't need more money in political campaigns, and we don't need more secrecy."
The Florida super PAC
Sometimes described as Florida's version of the super PAC — ostensibly independent groups that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on federal elections — ECOs are even less regulated, since there is no ban on their direct coordination with candidates' campaigns.
The groups are barred by state law from "expressly advocating" for a candidate's election, a legal line they often toe by pouring money into negative advertising about a favored politician's opponents.
The ECO supporting Gualtieri, Citizens for a Safer Pinellas, has spent $110,000 this election cycle, compared to $285,000 spent by the sheriff's own campaign. The group barraged voters with direct mail and set up billboards attacking Everett Rice, Gualtieri's Republican opponent in the August primary, as a "double dipper" who wanted to collect a public employee's salary on top of the pension he earned during his previous terms as sheriff.
Nancy Whitlock, spokeswoman for the Pinellas supervisor of elections, said Citizens for a Safer Pinellas was the first local ECO ever registered in Pinellas County. Among the group's donors are former Danka Office Imaging Co. CEO Dan Doyle of Belleair and Gualtieri's mother-in-law, Patricia Ganson of Palm Harbor, each of whom contributed $10,000 in March.
Meanwhile, a Bradenton-based ECO, Florida First, paid for direct mail during the primary stating that Gualtieri was "lying" about Rice and had "let drug dealers back on our streets." Campaign finance records show that Florida First made multiple payments over the summer to the Tampa firm run by Rice's political consultant, Anthony Pedicini.
Florida First has raised $1.2 million since 2010, according to state records. Its largest contributions have come from real estate companies and another ECO, Partnership for Florida's Future, that is funded by pro-business groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Florida First also ran an ad praising Pinellas School Board candidate Elliott Stern — whose campaign treasurer, Jean Wittner, donated $20,000 to the ECO in June.
In a curious instance of bipartisanship, direct mail lauding Republican Rice's record as the former sheriff was funded by Taxpayers for Integrity in Government, a $1 million Tallahassee group run by Democratic consultant Todd Wilder.
Joseph Abruzzo, a Democratic state representative from Wellington who helps raise money for the group, said he was caught off guard when he learned from the Times that money from the ECO was going to a Republican candidate.
"I'm kind of shocked, or surprised, to find out that they spent money on a Republican race," he said.
'Veiled political actors' financing campaigns
ECOs are required to report their contributions and expenses to the Florida secretary of state, but not which campaigns they spend money on, and the shadow network of operatives, consultants and attorneys who manage the day-to-day operations of ECOs aren't eager to talk about their business. Most of the registered ECO officers the Tampa Bay Times called or emailed for comment did not respond, and others declined to comment.
"They're veiled political actors," said Daniel Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida. "It's pretty easy to be deceptive," he said, about "what interests are financing them and the campaigns."
University of South Florida government professor Susan MacManus said it's not surprising, given the extraordinary amounts of money brought to this battleground state by the closely contested presidential race, that more money is finding its way to local politicians far down-ballot, who she said serve as the "bench" for future state elections.
In the races for two Pinellas County Commission seats, Justice and fellow Democrat Janet Long were attacked as "too costly" and "too out of touch" in direct mail paid for by an ECO called the Main Street Leadership Council.
Campaign finance records show that two other groups, Floridians for Liberty and the Committee for a Conservative House, together pitched in $118,000 of the Main Street Leadership Council's $141,000 in funding this year.
The Committee for a Conservative House is affiliated with incoming state House of Representatives Speaker Will Weatherford, a Republican from Wesley Chapel. An aide, Ryan Duffy, referred questions to the Main Street Leadership Council.
Floridians for Liberty is affiliated with Republican Jeff Brandes, a state representative from St. Petersburg who is expected to win a state Senate seat in November. Brandes did not respond to requests for comment.
Republican Pinellas County Commissioner Nancy Bostock, who is being challenged by Justice, said she knows nothing about the organization that is apparently willing to spend money to see her re-elected.
"What I know about it is what I've seen in my mailbox," Bostock said.
Times staff writer Anna Phillips and researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.