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RIDING A SOFT MONEY TRAIN

Some legislators pile up millions in donations to funds they control.

State Sen. Jeff Atwater can't accept a free cup of coffee when he meets with a lobbyist because of a gift ban intended to lessen the influence of special interests on Florida's Legislature.

But the North Palm Beach Republican rakes in donations of up to $25,000 for a political committee under his control.

Roughly a year before he is expected to assume the Senate presidency, Atwater sits atop a $521,000 fund raised from a few dozen donors in the past 11 months. Among the $25,000 contributors were AutoNation, political action committees for car dealers and Realtors, and Hartman & Tyner, a gambling company.

Atwater is one of more than two dozen lawmakers who together have amassed millions of dollars under a continuing anomaly in Florida' political fundraising laws.

While state election law limits individual contributions to candidates' campaign accounts to $500, there is no similar limit on committees of continuing existence or CCEs.

CCEs like Atwater's, called Preserve the American Dream, allows wealthy donors to steer unrestricted donations known as "soft money" to groups controlled by individual lawmakers, who then decide how the money is spent.

Lawmakers, in turn, dole out money to political strategists and favored candidates. They spend the money on personal expenses such as meals, hotel rooms, plane tickets and cell phone bills.

For example, Atwater has spent $105,000 for Public Concepts, a West Palm Beach political consulting firm. The senator, who has also raised at least $564,000 for his re-election campaign, did not respond to two requests for comment.

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, controls a committee called Floridians for Principled Government which has raised more than $217,000 over three years. More than half the money was collected in 2007 with the help of racetracks, unions, check-cashing stores, lobbyists and HMOs.

In the past two months, Gulfstream Park Racing Association, which runs a Broward gambling casino, gave Fasano's committee $25,000; Florida Cable Telecommunications Association gave $20,000.

"It allows us to promote a philosophy of fiscal conservatism and to support candidates and causes of less government, less taxes and more personal responsibility," Fasano said. "Regardless of who gives me a contribution, I vote my conscience and cast my vote for what I believe is best for the citizens of the state and my district."

But in 2007, Fasano's committee made just three campaign contributions of $500 each. It spent $13,000 for a poll and gave $20,000 to the committee linked to Atwater, who will decide Fasano's committee assignments if both men win re-election in 2008.

In 2006, Fasano's committee reimbursed him nearly $10,000 in personal expenses.

"As I travel the state and go around and visit and support candidates, the [committee] reimburses me for my travel," he said.

Facing criticism for their freewheeling solicitation of large donations, legislators required that any committee under the control of a lawmaker must register with the House or Senate, create a Web site and list all donations and expenses within 10 days.

The Senate still enforces that rule, but the House quietly repealed it in 2006.

The runaway leader in committee fund-raising among senators is Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, whose Citizens for Housing & Urban Growth has raised more than $767,000 over three years.

The largest single donation was for $50,000 from Angelo's Aggregates, a Largo company seeking to build a controversial landfill in Pasco County.

Bennett said he doesn't support the project and the firm never asked for his help.

"I wouldn't want a dump in my back yard, either," Bennett said. "They've never asked me for anything. Normally, when somebody gives you that much money, there's an ask out there."

Sen. Dave Aronberg, a Palm Beach County Democrat, has raised $150,000 over three years through a committee he calls Citizens for Political Accountability.

Nearly $10,000 of committee money has been reimbursed to Aronberg for travel expenses, and the committee paid Aronberg's $4,350 membership fee in Leadership Florida.

The committee has given $2,700 in campaign contributions to six candidates who share Aronberg's philosophy.

Aronberg said he favors limits on soft-money committees, but as long as it's legal he plans to take advantage of it so as not to give opponents an advantage.

But, he said, "When you have unlimited contributions, that's a direct threat to the integrity of the political process."

Sen. Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg, filed a bill last year to ban legislator-controlled soft money machines, but it was never scheduled for a hearing.

Justice has filed a bill for 2008 (SB 810) that would cap donations to certain committees at $500. In an election year with control of both houses at stake, it's not likely to get very far.

"It's a joke to say you can only give me $500, but you can give a million dollars to 'Floridians for a Better Tomorrow,'" Justice said. "It makes a mockery of our campaign laws. We need to do something to slow down this train."

Times researcher Nadia Mundy contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Soft-money senators

Florida legislators who have raised the most money for committees under their control include:

Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton

$767,404

Citizens for Housing & Urban Growth

www.housingandurbangrowth.com

Sen. Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach

$520,781

Preserve the American Dream

www.preservetheamericandream.org

Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami

$389,143

Floridians for Accountable Government

www.floridiansforaccountablegovt.org

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey

$217,263

Floridians for Principled Government

www.flpg.net

Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-Greenacres

$150,000

Citizens for Political Accountability

www.citizensforpoliticalaccountability.com

Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne

$111,825

The Committee for Florida's Fiscal Future

www.floridasfiscalfuture.com

Source: Florida Senate

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