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A Times Editorial

Of slush and sleaze

Afederal investigation into the political dealings of a South Florida ophthalmologist shows the state's political slush funds don't discriminate in whom they deceive. Even contributors angling to buy influence in Tallahassee can end up duped.

The arrest of Dr. Alan Mendelsohn, who raised more than $2 million over the past decade operating three such accounts, is further evidence of the need to close massive loopholes in state campaign finance laws to ensure the public knows who is giving and who is receiving political contributions.

The Sept. 29 federal indictment accuses Mendelsohn of illegally funneling some of the cash he raised to a mistress, his children's education and an unnamed elected official. He is charged with making false statements to federal agents when he claimed to have bribed state elected officials to drop investigations on behalf of contributors. And Mendelsohn used political connections to win his son admission to the University of Florida medical school, including scoring letters of recommendation from Gov. Charlie Crist and ex-Senate President Ken Pruitt.

The full fallout of Mendelsohn's arrest is yet to come. The indictment indicates there are at least two unnamed individuals who should be brought to justice: a lobbyist who acted as an accomplice and an elected official who received $87,000.

But the federal prosecutor's inquiry into even a corner of the labyrinth of special interest politics infecting Florida is welcome. The shadowy groups — known as 527s because of the IRS tax code — have wreaked increasing havoc on the political process as both political operatives and politicians have become well versed in using them to finance everything from vitriolic campaigns to lifestyle perks for those who control them.

Under Florida law, contributions to individual state candidates are limited to no more than $500. Contributions to political parties are not limited but must subscribe to rigorous disclosure requirements. Contributions to political committees are far less transparent. They often go by innocuous names that make it impossible to decipher their true political goals — one of Mendelsohn's, for example, was the Alliance for Florida's Future. And it's fairly common for individuals to participate in multiple committees and transfer resources from one to another, making it all but impossible to trace who is underwriting which campaigns.

The lack of transparency not only encourages reckless behavior such as a race-baiting flier used last month in a special election for a Jacksonville-area state Senate seat. Apparently, it also makes it very easy to fool even contributors about how their money will be spent.

Mendelsohn's is the second scandal to hit Tallahassee in less than a year. Former House Speaker Ray Sansom remains under federal scrutiny for his role in funneling $6 million in tax dollars to a state college for essentially an airplane hangar sought by a generous campaign contributor. That came under scrutiny only after that same college, Northwest Florida State College, gave him a plum, unadvertised job with a six-figure salary. These things don't happen in a vacuum.

Lawmakers have tolerated special interests and the secretive nature of third-party groups they spawn in part because they have seen their own campaigns benefit from their donations. Now Tallahassee needs cleaning up. A great place to start would be full disclosure requirements for any third-party group created solely to influence any election in Florida. Voters have a right to know exactly who is buying influence from whom — and for how much.

Of slush and sleaze 10/10/09 [Last modified: Monday, October 12, 2009 2:54pm]
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