TALLAHASSEE — The ritual is so routine it hardly draws attention.
In the ramp-up to the annual legislative session, Florida's most politically powerful corporations seed hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign cash into the political committees of legislators.
Sometimes legislators hold fundraisers at swanky resorts or sporting events. Or they corner lobbyists over cocktails in a Tallahassee bar, usually during the busy committee weeks leading up to the 60-day regular session, when lawmakers can't fundraise.
But getting details on who got what is impossible. Florida law allows groups that accept contributions from corporations to legally distribute money to other political committees, including those controlled by legislators, without reporting the original source of the cash. The practice of shielding political spending from public view has fueled the "dark money" trend in politics that has allowed groups to launch political attacks in state and local campaigns without fear of being traced.
This year, two of the state's biggest donors — Florida Power & Light and U.S. Sugar — contributed more than $2 million in the first two months, according to a Times/Herald review of Division of Elections records. FPL is attempting to win support for two bills to overturn unfavorable court rulings, and U.S. Sugar is working to oppose Senate President Joe Negron's plan to buy farm land for a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee.
So how much of FPL's $1.5 million went to the eight members of the Senate committee that unanimously supported FPL's bills last week? Senate Energy Committee chair Frank Artiles reported travel, drinks and food from FPL only after the Times/Herald disclosed it, but did the Miami Republican or other legislators on the committee receive any contributions from the company?
It's difficult to know. Although committees must report all contributions and are barred from coordinating with donors about how to spend the money, the lack of transparency has prompted two legislators to propose bills to reform the system.
"Everything we do is a complete joke," said Rep. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, who was elected last year after a divisive and close primary contest. "All the reporting is a waste of time if we have no transparency."
Gruters and Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Melbourne, have proposed legislation that would ban the practice of committees transferring funds to other committees, allowing the public to better see who gives and who gets millions in political contributions.
Under the proposals, HB 1057 and SB 1178, political committees could not transfer money to another political committee to shield the source. The only entities that would be allowed to accept unlimited amounts of cash to transfer to other committees would be the political parties and the House and Senate leadership funds, which are controlled by the House speaker and Senate president.
"Everything stays within a silo, and it has to be disclosed within that silo," Gruters said. "It won't solve all the problems, but it is a good start."
Of the $1.5 million FPL has contributed to political committees this year, $601,500 went to four political committees operated by Associated Industries of Florida, a business lobbying group and $500,000 went to five committees operated by the Florida Chamber of Commerce.
According to data on the Florida Division of Elections website, FPL divided its contributions to AIF, but there is no way to tell which legislators received any of the cash — unless in the case of one committee, there is a single donor. Each of three committees was given $200,000 — Floridians for a Stronger Democracy, the Florida Prosperity Fund and Floridians United for Our Children's Future. Another $1,500 was sent to the AIF PAC.
FPL was the only contributor to AIF's Floridians for a Stronger Democracy so far this year, so its contributions to lawmakers can be tracked.
The committee distributed $145,010 in checks, including $25,000 to the political committee of Sen. Jack Latvala, the Clearwater Republican who heads the Senate budget committee; $20,000 to Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, $10,000 to Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, $10,000 to Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, $10,000 to Sen. Dana Young, R-Tampa, and $10,000 to Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers. Young is a member of the Senate committee that voted for FPL's bills last week, and Brodeur is sponsoring the House bill to allow FPL to pass along to customers some costs of its investments in out-of-state natural gas fracking.
FPL, which said it would not comment on its campaign contributions, wrote its largest checks in 2017 to Florida's two unannounced but widely speculated candidates for higher office: Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam, who received $250,000, and Gov. Rick Scott, who got a check for $100,000.
The next largest donor to the political committees of AIF and the Florida Chamber so far this year is U.S. Sugar. The company has given $538,000 overall to the governor and various legislative political committees, including $80,000 to AIF and Florida Chamber committees.
According to Division of Election records, $45,000 of U.S. Sugar's donations went to three Florida Chamber committees, and another $30,000 went into two AIF committees. The company gave $22,500 to the Florida Chamber PAC, $15,000 to the chamber's Florida Jobs PAC and $7,500 to the Southwest Florida Chamber Alliance. It gave $20,000 to the AIF PAC, and $10,000 to the Voice of Florida Business PAC.
Of these Florida Chamber political committees, the Florida Chamber PAC spent $171,000 on political committee expenditures while the others spent only $4,000 each. Among the largest recipients of donations from the Florida Chamber PAC were the political committees of Putnam, which received $100,000; Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, which received $25,000; Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, which received $15,000, and Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, which received $10,000.
AIF does not reveal its members and does not list its board of directors. Tom Feeney, AIF president, said his organization has not taken a position on the bills, and he would not comment on how members use the group's political committees.
Mark Wilson, president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which operates 13 active political committees and two electioneering organizations, said his organization also does not have a position on the bills but says the practice of operating political committees is a service to members, and most of the contributions are smaller than the six-digit checks from the large corporations.
In addition to FPL and U.S. Sugar, records show that other large donors include FCCI Insurance Group, which has given $296,000 this year; Disney Worldwide, $272,025; Florida Blue, $254,500, and HCA affiliates, $235,000, according to a Times/Herald analysis.
If Gruters' and Mayfield's bill were to pass, none of the contributions to the business groups' political committees could be funneled to legislative political committees.
"It's a giant shell game, and to me it's incredibly disappointing," said Gruters, a freshman and former Sarasota County Republican Party chair.
He says he almost lost his state House race when, in the final 14 days of the campaign, an unknown political committee dropped 12 attack mailers on voters in his district — a cost Gruters estimates at $100,000. Because of the convoluted trail of contributions, and the Florida law that allows political committees to transfer money to other political committees without identifying the source of the funds, Gruters said he could never find who fronted the money.
"I'm a CPA I can track it but it goes into a black hole — almost like a clearinghouse — of these PCs and you can't trace where the money is coming from," he said. "That's a major problem. I can't take a cup of coffee and not report it without getting fined, but somebody can spend the value of a house against me, and for me not to be able to go thank them, I think is a real problem."
But Gruters, who antagonized House Speaker Richard Corcoran by voting against his crackdown on Enterprise Florida, admits the measure is a long shot, even though it is keeping with the speaker's goal of making the legislative process more transparent.
Mayfield has signed Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, as a co-sponsor and said the language has been reviewed by Senate elections committee staff. She hopes it gets a lift in the Senate and then is rolled into a committee bill in the House. The measure also rolls back some of the reporting requirements for political committees, which she said "get us back to some common sense."
"While the bill doesn't try to do a lot, what it does try to do is critically important," said Bob White, chair of the Republican Liberty Caucus of Florida, which was in Tallahassee last week lobbying for campaign finance reform.
The New Port Richey-based group has started the "Come Clean in 2017" campaign to push for this and other reforms that end what they state on their web site is "legal laundering of millions of dollars in special interest campaign contributions through political committees controlled by legislative leaders."
White argues that legislators have allowed special interests to control the legislative agenda and "it results in bigger government and bigger bureaucracies."
"The voter, your average voter in Florida, is losing their voice in the Florida Legislature to the powerful special interests," he said. "It's become a pay-to-play environment, and we just object to that strenuously."
Wilson, president of the Florida Chamber, said the 2017 contributions from FPL and U.S. Sugar are not unusual for the companies which traditionally are among the largest contributors to campaigns in the state. And while Wilson said "it doesn't matter to us" if the legislation passes, he said it might increase tensions within an already a splintered Republican Party.
Democratic political consultant Steve Schale supports Gruters and Mayfield's bill as a good first step but argues that a better step would be to "move to a system where committees are minimalized or firewalled off and everything runs through the actual candidate."
As long as political money has been deemed speech by the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in the Citizens United case, he said. "we deal with the world we live in by making everybody in the system accountable for money in, and money out — and we make it transparent."
Contact Mary Ellen Klas at [email protected] Follow @MaryEllenKlas