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Lifting veil from hidden donations

Gov. Jeb Bush and legislative leaders agree they must stop lawmakers from secretly collecting large campaign donations from special interests and hiding the information from the public.

How they will do it is unclear.

With the 2004 legislative session starting five weeks from today, no bill has been filed. But after news reports documented the proliferation of these secret slush funds, there is widespread agreement that change is needed.

"It shouldn't be that hard for us to be able to figure out a way to allow for voters, and members of the press, and others, to be able to know who gave what to whom, and where that money's going," Bush told the St. Petersburg Times.

The issue is so important, Bush said it's his third priority this year, after health care and changes in the way the state Constitution is amended.

In the past four years, more than two dozen Florida lawmakers raised $3-million in unlimited donations through the funds, a Times analysis found in September. The source of more than $1-million of that money was secret, even to the Internal Revenue Service, which requires identification of donors.

Bush was among the harshest critics of the practice of lawmakers setting up obscure fundraising groups that are loosely regulated by state election law. By using a provision intended to help trade groups avoid listing dues from hundreds of members, more than two dozen legislators set up funds known as committees of continuous existence.

Unlike a legislator's re-election fund, which cannot accept contributions greater than $500, the committees can collect unlimited amounts. Lawmakers have routinely accepted donations of $10,000, $20,000 and $25,000, most from groups with a stake in legislation, such as health care companies, sugar growers and telecommunications companies.

Most lawmakers have voluntarily stopped hiding donations as "membership dues" and made the names and occupations public. In some cases, however, donors are not identified on the Division of Elections Web site, making the information inaccessible to the public.

Besides Bush, two other advocates for change are the Legislature's incoming leaders: Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, and Rep. Allan Bense, R-Panama City.

"I think we need to rein those in a little bit and have a bit more public disclosure on those," Bense said of the fundraising committees in a December appearance on the public television program Florida Face to Face. "The good news is, both chambers agree we need to have some work done there."

When Bense ran for House speaker, he created a committee to pay for his extensive travel and to collect political IOUs by making contributions to lawmakers and candidates.

Bense's fund, the Florida Committee for Conservative Leadership, listed every donor by name, even though it is not required by state law.

So did House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, whose Committee for Responsible Government financed Byrd's successful drive for speaker.

Byrd also endorsed the call for greater disclosure of big-money contributions. "I think it would be a good time to move forward and give transparency at the state level to campaign finance," he said last week.

"We need to have a review of what we're doing, and it needs to be done sooner rather than later," said Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville. "But it's not one of those things that you can easily say what we should do, quickly."

Lee, King's designated successor, went a step further with his fund, Floridians Uniting for a Stronger Tomorrow. It posts all contributions on its Web site, www.flust.com, within days of their receipt. In most cases, the law requires committees to file reports every three months.

Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, revealed last year that a committee he controls received a $50,000 contribution from the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers in the middle of the legislative fight over medical malpractice. The academy opposed caps on malpractice jury awards.

It was the largest single contribution to any of the legislative committees at the time. But since the Times report in September, a committee controlled by Rep. Marco Rubio, R-Coral Gables, matched it.

Rubio's committee took in $122,000 in the last three months of 2003, some of it after Rubio was declared the winner of the 2006-2008 speaker's race.

Nearly half the money, $50,000, came from a single benefactor: Ophthalmology PAC, a political action committee controlled by Alan Mendelson, a politically active Hollywood ophthalmologist.

Rubio now discloses the names of all contributors, after initially declining to do so. His fund also received $20,000 from Florida Crystals Corp., a sugar grower; $10,000 from Wellcare Health Plans, a Tampa managed care company; $7,500 from AT&T; and $7,500 from U.S. Sugar Corp.

Despite criticism from Bush and government watchdog groups such as Common Cause, Rep. Don Brown, R-De Funiak Springs, won't reveal the donors to his Committee for Florida's Economic Future.

In the latest filing, which includes $1,500 collected in December, Brown notes only that donors are in the insurance industry. Brown is an insurance agent and a member of the House Insurance Committee. The fund has raised $45,800.

Rep. Randy Johnson, R-Celebration, is a trustee of Citizens for Florida's Future, which has raised $108,000, including $17,500 in the last quarter of 2003. That money came from four donors: Disney Worldwide Services gave $10,000, Wellcare Health Plans of Tampa gave $5,000, Enterprise Rent-A-Car's PAC gave $1,000, and the Coalition of Affordable Housing Providers gave $1,500.

Johnson is chairman of the House Select Committee on Affordable Housing.

Sen. Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, has agreed to disclose all contributors to the Spirit of Florida, of which he is chairman. That fund received a $12,500 check in November from Richard Parrillo, whose North Miami Beach-based United Auto Insurance is one of the biggest providers of PIP personal-injury coverage in Florida.

Lee's leading donors

Here are the leading contributors to Floridians United for a Stronger Tomorrow, a new fundraising committee formed by Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, the next Senate president, right.

Donor Amount

Alliance for Florida's Future (health care) $50,000

Florida Phosphate CCE $30,000

Wellcare Health Plans, Tampa $25,000

OPHPAC (ophthalmologists' PAC) $25,000

Florida CUPAC (banking PAC) $25,000

Ronald Frazier (computer executive) $15,000

Sprint $10,000

TECO $10,000

Source: www.flust.com

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