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Developers big donors to Bush's foundation

Developers are pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into Jeb Bush's private foundation aimed at promoting his legacy as the education governor.

The governor has raised $897,000 for his Foundation for Florida's Future since quietly creating it last year. Bush and his foundation staff have declined to say how they will spend the money promoting his education agenda, but its new Web site discloses that he is tapping some of his most reliable political donors.

More than one-third of the money raised since August, $300,000, came from the Villages, the mega development in north-central Florida.

Another $100,000 came from Century Homebuilders of Miami, run by Sergio Pino, a close Bush friend whose concessions business at Miami International Airport was a longtime source of controversy. Two prominent Pinellas Republican donors, developer James Holton of Madeira Beach and construction company executive Nick Kotaiche of St. Petersburg, each gave $25,000.

"It's to continue the education reforms of the great governor of this great state," Kotaiche said of his support for the foundation. With Bush leaving office after this year, "I see it as continuing to give him access to working capital so he can continue on with his initiatives through the foundation."

Neither the governor nor the foundation's executive director responded to questions Friday. But some observers see more than philanthropic interests at work.

"It's kind of typical campaign finance in Florida," said Ben Wilcox, executive director of Common Cause Florida, the campaign finance reform group. "You find these wealthy special interests who are giving to committees and candidates, people with power to help them. . . . They're doing it as an investment, hoping for a return on their investment."

The governor has indeed been good to the Villages. In 2003, he backed a controversial bill that helped the Villages Regional Hospital sidestep state regulation other hospitals face when wanting to expand.

The Palm Beach Post reported that Gov. Bush recently sought to end federal court oversight of the state's Everglades cleanup, a move that would be welcomed by U.S. Sugar Corp., which gave the foundation $25,000 in October. In December, Bush tapped South Florida developer Sue Cobb to be secretary of state. A month later, a company connected to her husband, Charles Cobb, chairman and chief executive officer of Arvida Corp. and the Disney Development Co., gave $10,000 to the governor's foundation.

The foundation's Web site, www.foundationforfloridasfuture.org, touts rising student achievement under the governor's education program, but says the foundation is especially important given the recent state Supreme Court ruling overturning one of the state's school voucher programs.

"Seven years of improvements won't ensure that tomorrow's kindergarteners will benefit from the same commitment to their education. And due to the Florida Supreme Court's recent decision that Opportunity Scholarships are unconstitutional, the opportunities of thousands of Florida students hang in the balance," Bush said in an e-mail Friday seeking support for the foundation.

Not all the donors wrote big checks. Asked about the $1 he gave, Joseph Szlosek of Providence, R.I., said he must have responded to a mail solicitation.

"I'm just a sucker for these charitable things that sound like they're for a good cause," he said with a chuckle. "But Jeb Bush does seem like one of the better governors in the South."

Times staff writers Matt Waite and Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.

LARGEST DONATIONS

Here are the biggest donors to Jeb Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future:

The Villages, development, $300,000

Century Homebuilders, Miami, $100,000

Arnold Y. Aronoff, investor, Naples and Bloomfield Hills, Mich., $50,000

Ambassador Richard Blankenship, investor, Jacksonville, $50,000

Lawrence DeGeorge, investor, Jupiter, $50,000

Trans Florida Development Corp., Miami, $50,000

Alberts Air Conditioning Corp., Miami, $40,000

Florida Association of Realtors, Orlando, $25,000

James Holton, developer, Madeira Beach, $25,000

Nick Kotaiche, builder, St. Petersburg, $25,000

Stephanie Siegel, wife of developer, Boca Raton, $25,000

St. Joe Co., developer, Jacksonville, $25,000

United Communication & Protection, security, Hialeah Gardens, $25,000

U.S. Sugar Corp., sugar, Clewiston, $25,000.

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