Attorney General Bill McCollum finally acknowledged last week that he steers supporters to a shadowy independent group where they can write bigger checks to help his faltering campaign for governor. He conceded he knows that key consultants from his own campaign are involved with the group. Yet he insisted with a straight face to the state's newspaper editors that he has no idea what that group is doing and how it relates to his campaign strategy. That hardly meets the standard for candor and transparency voters should expect from someone who wants to be Florida's next governor.
The third-party deluge of television ads attacking McCollum's Republican primary opponent, former health care executive and millionaire Rick Scott, began after Scott started spending millions of his own money on TV ads and took a lead in the polls. Self-financed campaigns by wealthy candidates with no track record of public service are a concern when there is not a vigorous public campaign financing system to level the playing field. But at least voters know it's Scott's money that is paying for his television ads, and they can judge for themselves the wisdom of supporting someone who ran a company that paid a $1.7 billion fine for Medicare fraud.
Voters have no idea what special interests are spending millions to help McCollum's bid. His campaign account, where contributions are limited to $500 per person per election and publicly reported frequently, has spent more than $800,000 on advertising. But two third-party groups have spent at least $2.4 million collectively to fund anti-Scott ads. Where is that money coming from?
The lesser player of the two groups, calling itself the Florida First Initiative, is a 527 group (named after federal tax code) and has the most McCollum ties. It will have to disclose its contributors under federal law in mid July and ultimately under state law closer to the Aug. 24 primary election. The more generous group, Alliance for America's Future, has spent $1.8 million on anti-Scott ads and likely won't disclose its donors until early next year. It hides behind a federal law that allows a nonprofit 501(c)(4) group to lobby on issues of "social welfare" but is not supposed to spend money to participate in candidates' campaigns.
But any voter who has seen the group's ad on "Medicare fraud" knows the group is stretching, if not defying, the law. Scott is the clear subject of the piece. Similar efforts on behalf of a Nevada Republican gubernatorial candidate prompted a judge in that state to bar the group from running any more ads until it registered as a political action group so it would be subject to financial disclosure laws.
But there's been nothing close to the same outrage from McCollum — whose job as attorney general is to defend the state's open government and election laws. He shrugs off the secrecy and says the contributions will be disclosed eventually. The ties are particularly tight with the 527: McCollum's name was used in a solicitation letter and his campaign's attorneys, chief fundraiser, media buyer and a prominent supporter are all involved. Yet his campaign spokesman denies the attorney general has to submit a disclosure form since he does not control the 527.
The Alliance for America's Future, whose advisers include Dick Cheney's daughter Mary, has complained that disclosure would chill contributors' donations. But voters have a right to know who is trying to influence elections and ultimately, government. Any candidate who fails to understand that and hides behind election law loopholes risks losing voters' trust long before Election Day.