Slush funds, ethics reform don't mix

State Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, left, the incoming Senate president, and Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, incoming Florida House speaker, lead committees purportedly about good government but really about money. SCOTT KEELER   |   Times
State Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, left, the incoming Senate president, and Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, incoming Florida House speaker, lead committees purportedly about good government but really about money.SCOTT KEELER | Times
Published November 5 2012
Updated November 5 2012

You have probably figured out by now that when you see an advertisement paid for by some innocuous-sounding group like Floridians for Motherhood, Apple Pie and Love of God's America, you are about to be subjected to more demagogic drivel than Huey Long on steroids.

The fancy technical name for organizations like Floridians Who Love Their Country or The Council for Cute as the Dickens Children is committees of continuing existence. And they sure do continue to exist.

They are the handiwork of some of Florida's prominent political figures. Florida Senate President-elect Don Gaetz, R-Brother Can You Spare A Million?, has his Florida Conservative Majority. Florida House Speaker-elect Will Weatherford, R-It's Good To Be King, has his own Committee for a Conservative House.

On paper — most of it green with dead presidents — these coffee klatches of cash are ostensibly touted as groups in support of good government, which is like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie creating a committee of continuing existence to promote calorie counting.

But these phooey-filled flag-waving committees have nothing to do with honoring democracy. For all practical purposes they are nothing more than slush funds, whose sole purpose is to launder money through the political process to enhance the power of Gaetz, Weatherford and their fellow travelers of Tallahassee's Tammany Hall. This election cycle, these groups have raked in $20 million in contributions.

Gaetz's operation received $3.6 million; Weatherford's $2 million. The Florida Leadership Fund, the committee formed by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Big Daddy, dedicated to massaging his own leadership ambition, pulled in $1.8 million.

And even outgoing House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-I'll Be Back, finagled $1.1 million.

Where did the money come from? It came from patriots such as the Florida Medical Association who ponied up a $100,000 stocking stuffer to Gaetz's committee. Bob Perry, a Houston homebuilder, sent a $250,000 air kiss to Weatherford's committee.

The committees for continuing influence peddling have nothing to do with advancing the cause of noble governance. Does anyone believe the Florida Medical Association, or out-of-state real estate developers, or the Walt Disney Co. are lavishing money upon the state's most powerful lawmakers because they want to educate schoolchildren about the Federalist Papers?

Contributions to the committees controlled by Gaetz, Weatherford and others are nothing more than legalized bribes to guarantee access in the halls of power. Committee organizers use them to advance their own political agendas by spreading the moolah around to other like-minded candidates.

For example, Longwood Republican state Rep. Scott Plakon is locked in a competitive campaign against Democrat Karen Castor Dentel, the sister of Tampa U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor.

But never fear, riding to Plakon's rescue was the speciously titled Committee to Protect Florida, or as it otherwise should be known: the Committee to Protect Scott Plakon's Political Keister.

The Committee to Protect Florida (from reality?) cooked up a flier linking Castor Dentel, an elementary school teacher, with convicted child predator, former Pennsylvania State University football coach Jerry Sandusky. Because Castor Dentel opposed the Legislature's 2011 effort to eliminate teacher tenure, the pro-Plakon group wanted to suggest the candidate apparently must also be in cahoots with child molesters.

Who has underwritten much of this slack-jawed effort? Weatherford's Committee for a Conservative House.

A few weeks ago, Gaetz and Weatherford announced their first order of business would be to institute tighter and more accountable ethics rules. Isn't that precious?

But judging from the willingness to pad their cockamamie committees with special interest money and to smear Castor Dentel with an imaginary association with a reviled sexual pervert simply over a public policy disagreement, that ethics crusade is off to a bumpy start.

If Gaetz and Weatherford were serious about ethics reform they would lead the charge to rid the political system of the dubious committees.

That would require enlightened governance. Cue the laugh track.