Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Politics

Social welfare group Progressive Choice keeps things secret

As Charlie Crist and Rick Scott last week argued over who is more transparent with tax returns, there's one factor in the race for governor that is decidedly secretive: Progressive Choice.

That's the group that has for months attacked former Republican Crist in mailers and a new, racially charged radio ad about his past support for prison chain gangs. No one knows much about Progressive Choice but there are plenty of theories, including that it's a liberal-sounding group doing Scott's dirty work.

Not true, says the group's organizer.

"I definitely understand that in looking to make sense of an organization like this one, that folks would go in that direction," Jamie Fontaine-Gansell said in an interview. "It's just not the case."

But she would reveal little about the workings of the group, which emerged this year looking to knock down Crist as he ignores Democratic primary rival Nan Rich.

When pressed if the group has gotten any money from Republicans, Fontaine-Gansell said, "I don't check the registration of every person who's given to our organization."

Fontaine-Gansell, whose bio lists work in Democratic circles outside Florida and LGBT activism, refused to name the donors and by law, she doesn't have to.

She would not even characterize where the money is generally coming from. For example, is it one or two big donors or many? Is the money coming from Florida or other states?

"I'm not going to talk about the donors," Fontaine-Gansell said.

She held up the provocative chain gang radio ad, which attempted to link Crist with slavery, as a reason why donors would not want their names revealed. "Race is very difficult to talk about," she said, insisting it was a legitimate topic to examine Crist's record.

How is such secrecy possible?

The group is registered with the IRS as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit. It's a "social welfare" group that is permitted to engage in politics as long as politics is not the primary focus. In Washington, there's a major ongoing debate over that. You've probably heard about the controversy over the IRS targeting tea party groups. (Liberal groups were also scrutinized.)

The social welfare groups proliferated after the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court case Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission that allowed for unlimited spending from corporations and unions. That combined with the ability to hide donors' names made for an attractive option.

Progressive Choice's ads also fly under the disclosure radar because they are considered "issue" advocacy, not direct support of a candidate. The expenditures would only have to be reported if they fall within 30 days of the primary.

Fontaine-Gansell refused to discuss the group's strategy.

Tracking Progressive Choice is not simple. Fontaine-Gansell's firm, Fontaine & Co., is based in Baltimore. Progressive Choice was incorporated in Delaware. Its mailers in Florida list a P.O. box in Washington, D.C.

Fontaine-Gansell acknowledged the group has no specific ties to Florida. "We were really just looking nationwide (and saying), 'Where can we have an impact?' "

Rich hasn't gained traction against Crist but the ads could have the effect of softening Democratic support for Crist in an expected general election fight.

Rich said she knows nothing about the group other than what she has read. "But I like their message," she said.

Florida's big spenders

The Center for Responsive Politics published a list of top 100 political donors this election cycle.

Here are a few of the Floridians:

No. 23: Ron Firman, a retiree from Miami, has given $903,000 to a Super PAC that backed Paige Kreegel in his unsuccessful bid in the GOP primary for the 19th Congressional District.

No. 25: John W. Childs and his wife of Vero Beach have contributed $840,000 to Republicans and conservative groups, including $100,000 to Club for Growth Action and $100,000 to American Crossroads. Childs, who runs the private equity firm J.W. Childs Associates, is consistently a top donor in Florida.

No. 39: Barbara Stiefel, a retiree from Coral Gables, has given about $500,000 to Democratic causes, half of which went to the research opposition group American Bridge 21st Century that is following Gov. Rick Scott's every move. She also gave $25,000 to Ready for Hillary, a Super PAC supporting Hillary Clinton's possible presidential bid. Stiefel, whose family made money in the pharmaceutical business, gave more than $1 million in 2012 to Priorities USA Action, a Super PAC supporting President Barack Obama.

Today on 'Connections'

Check out Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Adrian Wyllie on Political Connections on Bay News 9 today at 11 a.m. and 8 p.m.

Times staff writers Adam C. Smith and Steve Bousquet contributed to this week's Buzz.

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