Floridians can only hope that the cadre of federal agents that descended on Tallahassee this week will stick around a while. Just a few years after politicians began exploiting a giant loophole in campaign finance laws to create and abuse political slush funds, it's about time somebody showed up to ask tough questions — with subpoena power.
Officially, agents from the Internal Revenue Service and Federal Bureau of Investigation are in town investigating the case of Alan Mendelsohn, a South Florida opthalmologist-turned-political-player, who is accused of illegally funneling $87,000 to an unnamed state legislator. Agents interviewed at least six state senators and their staff this past week. But they shouldn't stop there.
Mendelsohn represents a recurring theme in Tallahassee, where fundraisers pumping huge sums of soft money into the campaign finance system exert extraordinary influence. The story line is at play with former House Speaker Ray Sansom, who is under federal scrutiny for funneling $6 million in tax dollars to a state college to build an airplane hangar sought by major GOP donor Jay Odom. And just last week, Broward County lawyer Scott Rothstein, a major fundraiser for Gov. Charlie Crist and the Republican Party, was charged with federal racketeering and accused of using his political ties to help further a Ponzi scheme.
Soft money has flowed to political parties for years because donations to individual campaign accounts are capped at $500. But what is relatively new is the growth in political slush funds that are subject to even less regulation, creating a secretive pay-to-play culture in Tallahassee. Last election cycle, at least $6 million quietly flowed to legislators' so-called 527 accounts, a reference to the IRS tax code. Legislators used the money to finance their own travel and meals, launch stealth campaign attacks and even launder money for other political campaigns. Even worse, Florida voters currently have no way to adequately track similar slush funds set up by third parties.
As a result, it's no longer possible in Tallahassee, in the midst of a debate, to know who is trying to influence the process, a recipe that undercuts democracy and invites corruption. Three different federal inquiries suggest there is a fundamental problem with Tallahassee's culture. Floridians can only hope the federal agents stick around long enough to get to the bottom of it.