TALLAHASSEE — When the last cocktail had been poured and the last guests had floated away from the Florida Conference of Black State Legislators' annual Scholarship Gala last month, thousands of dollars had flowed into the nonprofit foundation, courtesy of five-figure checks from a variety of special interests with stakes in pending legislation.
How much was raised at the March 21 gala, VIP reception for donors and Scholarship Golf Tournament that weekend? Lawmakers won't say. They don't have to.
How will the money be spent? They won't say. They don't have to.
But records of past years' fundraising and interviews with caucus leaders indicate that less than 10 cents of every dollar raised actually go to college scholarships for the students whose names were projected on large screens at the gala.
Legislators are prohibited from accepting contributions from lobbyists during regular sessions. But they can solicit lobbyists' money for a charity: the black caucus foundation led by former legislators.
Records the caucus provided at the Times/Herald's request indicate that the caucus foundation raised nearly $800,000 over the past three years. The caucus wouldn't specify how much went to scholarships.
Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, the caucus chairman, told the Times/Herald that each student likely received $500. With 117 recipients in the past three years, that means 7 percent of the foundation's money went for scholarships.
Another caucus member, Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, said criticizing the scholarship share overlooks the fact that funds also pay for an annual legislative summit on issues that affect black Floridians, ranging from voting rights to helping ex-inmates.
"The caucus serves a very useful purpose," Joyner said.
But her colleague, Rep. Joe Gibbons, D-Hallandale Beach, shook his head in dismay at the low scholarship numbers.
"We don't do enough in the way of scholarships," he said, adding that he thinks each caucus member should be required to raise scholarship money for needy students.
"That's how you get respect in your community," said Gibbons, a former black caucus chairman.
Questions about the foundation come at a time when the Legislature is considering a new law to better regulate charities. It's a disconnect between image and purpose that hints at deeper divisions within the caucus. With 27 Democratic members, the caucus is larger than it ever has been in its 32-year history, yet some say it lacks the kind of unity and sense of purpose that it needs, particularly in a Republican-dominated Legislature.
"The caucus is really needed right now — probably as much now as it was in 1982," said former Sen. Al Lawson of Tallahassee, who helped organize the caucus. "But the caucus is not as close and cohesive as it was in 1982."
Term limits mean that inexperienced lawmakers are grappling with complex issues while also facing pressure to deliver money and programs for their constituents back home. That increases the sway of lobbyists and clients who donate to the foundation.
"It's the influence of the lobbying community," said Lawson, himself a lobbyist. "And in the Legislature, whether people want to agree with it or not, it's very prevalent on all sides, with all members. … I mean, it's hard to get away from it."
Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, infuriated fellow caucus members when he voted against repealing the "stand your ground'' law, a big issue for African-American legislators in the wake of well-publicized shootings of black youths by white men claiming self-defense.
And he doesn't mince words about the caucus' predicament. "There's very little that we can get done," he told a group from Leadership Tampa Bay visiting the Capitol last week.
"We can't pass a bill and we can't bring home an appropriation unless the Republican leadership lets us."
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In recent years, caucus foundation spending has focused on keeping staff paid and lights on in the office.
In 2012, the most recent year the organization's IRS public filing is available online, the caucus foundation reported revenue of $203,465. Of that, $154,139 was spent on salary and benefits for a full-time executive director, a second part-time employee, rent and other management costs.
Just $34,882 went for events and scholarships. Caucus chairman Williams said it isn't his place to say whether scholarship spending is too low.
"I can't say what's acceptable or not because I don't know what other expenses they had that year," he said.
The caucus foundation is overseen by a five-member board of former lawmakers including chairman Daryl Jones, now a Miami lawyer who deferred questions to the foundation's executive director. Using former lawmakers complies with the gift ban that, starting in 2006, prevented office holders from operating charities that could receive donations from special interests.
A separate "advocacy'' arm sharing the same address and staff is used as a conduit for the $500 annual dues that black legislators pay to cover weekly dinner meetings.
Williams is the public face of both entities. He welcomed guests to the gala and gave closing remarks. But he says he is hands-off when it comes to spending — as he must be to follow the law.
"At the end of the day, once the dollars come in we hope they do the best they can with the resources they have," he said.
The caucus includes 21 House members and six senators and comprises nearly half of the 61 Democrats in the 160-member Legislature. The lone black Republican, Rep. Mike Hill, declined to join the caucus.
Ten years ago, the caucus numbered 23; in 1994, it was 20. Thirteen of the 27 members are from Miami-Dade or Broward, three are from the Tampa Bay area.
The Democratic leaders in both houses are black caucus members: Sen. Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale and Rep. Perry Thurston of Plantation.
The only other group of lawmakers using a similar charity structure is the Hispanic caucus. Composed mainly of Republicans, it hasn't faced the policy challenges of the black caucus and went mostly dormant a few years ago.
But it re-energized in 2013, as its members began pushing an agenda opposed by conservative Republicans: in-state tuition for undocumented students. Its foundation raised $175,800 over a single weekend fundraiser at Walt Disney World.
Hispanic caucus leaders said they plan to spend $60,000 on scholarships in 2014, about a third of foundation revenues. But it has not awarded any scholarships since 2012 and made only a single $2,000 expenditure in 2013 to a Miami-Dade charity.
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Joyner, the incoming Senate Democratic leader, said black caucus members are fulfilling their responsibility to minority communities.
"Our voice is their voice. If we don't speak, they're not heard," Joyner said. "We speak for the whole array of people who are disadvantaged and who are at the bottom in this state.''
But issues that unify most of the caucus aren't getting much love in this Republican-led Legislature. Expanding the Medicaid program, limiting stand your ground, promoting a higher minimum wage and easing the restoration of civil rights for felons are mostly lost causes in Tallahassee.
On some issues, caucus unity gives way to local interest. Gibbons, who has three gambling centers in his district, favors more gambling and said the black caucus would have more muscle if it were unified on the issue. But other caucus members say they shouldn't be expected to vote as a bloc.
"Are the white members unified on some of these issues?" Joyner asked. "We have a big diversity of opinion."
The possibility that black lawmakers will bolt from their caucus and the Democratic Party to cut deals with Republicans is deeply rooted in Tallahassee lore. They did it in 1992 to secure approval of a redistricting plan that created winnable seats for black candidates while also helping Republicans achieve their ultimate goal of majority control, which they did in 1996.
Sen. Dwight Bullard of Miami, who is in the running to become caucus chairman after the session ends, said he hopes to refocus the caucus staff's efforts away from events and toward advocacy.
"The reality is, if the staff that is currently in place cannot meet the challenge, then we have to look into alternatives," he said.
Despite the obstacles, some caucus members think they could be more effective.
The impact new standards for Bright Futures have on poor and minority students or the share of state contracts that should go to minority businesses are areas where the black caucus could be more vocal, Gibbons said.
"Those are issues that I think we need to be strong on," he said. "Because I think there we can influence policy."