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Elections board takes aim at campaign fund abuses

The Florida Elections Commission is investigating the use of so-called soft money by both major state parties in 1992 legislative races and is looking at measures to prevent future abuses.

Days after last November's general elections, Republicans accused Democrats of violating the campaign finance law by spending more than $50,000 in at least 15 House races. Democrats said their spending was legal and countercharged that Republicans failed to accurately report the amount they spent on candidates, too.

State law caps party spending at $50,000 per legislative race but exempts spending on polling, research, voter mobilization and technical services.

Commission Chairman Donald "Dusty" Rhodes of Jacksonville said in a letter to the heads of both parties that the commission's review of 1992 campaign finance reports showed some candidates "may not have complied with the $50,000 contribution limitation." He asked the party leaders to come to the commission's July 23 meeting to discuss the problems.

Democratic and Republican officials and elections commission members agreed the problems arise in part from vague definitions that open wide loopholes.

"We have done some preliminary studies that indicate there is at least a difference in how they treat the so-called soft money," commission member Eric Buermann, a Coral Gables lawyer, said Thursday. "The differences are in how they report the disbursement and in how the candidates report what they receive.

"The commission is interested in making sure there are clear reporting standards .

.

. and making sure the report is accurate and means something to the reader."

Elections Commission officials refused to release a report prepared by investigators, citing state law that makes pending campaign complaints confidential. Buermann said the commission did not initiate complaints but did select legislative races at random "to get a handle on the problem."

GOP Chairman Tom Slade said he wants to see the state clean up the use of soft money.

"From the numbers I've seen, the Democrats have been outside the law on a fairly consistent basis," he said.

Lynda Russell, executive director of the Democratic Party, said that is not true. She said confusion occurred when the Democratic Party reported expenditures of greater than $50,000 in certain legislative races and the candidates then reported that amount without explaining the purpose of the money. The candidates' report, she said, failed to show that part of the money was exempt.

"I think interpretations need to be consistent," she said.

Slade said penalties are too small to effectively enforce the law. "What they need to do is define the rules in a way everybody can understand them and make it very painful to violate them."

Many advocates of campaign finance reform say the problem will not be fixed as long as parties can raise millions and pump the money into legislative races. In 1992, Democrats spent $7.7-million on legislative races while Republicans spent $3.6-million. Much of the money is raised from special interests with proposals affecting their profits pending in the Legislature.

The $50,000 lid on party contributions to a candidate is 100 times greater than the $500 limit on individual donations.

"As long as the parties can give that kind of money, the incentive to get in the lobbyist-shakedown business is there," Slade said.

Buermann, a Chiles appointee who serves in one of the commission's Republican seats, said the report singles out no party or candidate for violating the law.

"With a big election coming up, the potential is there that the soft money could certainly be abused and parceled improperly," he said, "but I don't think anybody feels we've got a smoking gun and we're out for blood on the part of any candidate or party."

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