Florida’s porous campaign finance laws: ‘You can do almost anything’

Groups exploit gray areas as big money pours into elections.
Florida's Old Capitol, seen from North Monroe Street in Tallahassee.
Florida's Old Capitol, seen from North Monroe Street in Tallahassee.
Published May 21, 2018

By Gary Fineout, Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE – Florida's wide-open race for governor won't be decided for another six months, but it's already triggered a wave of expensive television ad buys from groups taking advantage of gray areas in the state's campaign finance laws.

Campaigns are interpreting the law so liberally — and some experts think they will get away with it — that it could essentially render the laws meaningless.

So far, at least $13 million has been spent on television ads in the governor's race that includes two Republicans and four Democrats vying for the job that will be vacated by Gov. Rick Scott. Television ads are poised to play a crucial role in the race since polls continue to show a majority of the state's voters don't really know the Republican or Democratic candidates vying to replace him.

Some of the ads are being paid for by groups that insist they have no legal obligation to disclose who's paying for them. Other ads are being coordinated with campaigns relying on their own legal interpretation to sidestep laws and rules intended to place limits on ad campaigns being funded by large donors.

But the surge of ads highlights Florida's arcane and loosely regulated campaign finance system. Over the years, the Republican-controlled Legislature has made it easier for candidates and their allies to raise large amounts of money, while at the same time making it harder for the state's elections commission to go after those who violate the law.

"Florida really has no campaign finance laws," joked Christian Ulvert, a political consultant who is a senior adviser for the campaign of Philip Levine, the former mayor Miami Beach running for the Democratic nomination for governor.

Adds Mark Herron, an election law attorney based in Tallahassee: "You can do almost anything in Florida if you put it in the right bucket."
Here's a look at the ways that campaigns and groups are navigating state laws:

— Florida Grown, a political committee linked to Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, has raised millions, much of it coming from large donations from companies such as Publix, Florida Power & Light and Disney. The committee has already spent nearly $3 million to pay for television ads featuring Putnam. Committees can accept unlimited donations, but donations directly to statewide campaigns are limited to $3,000 per person.
A 2016 opinion by the Division of Elections suggests that if a political committee runs an ad featuring a candidate months ahead of an election it could be considered a contribution to the campaign.

But Putnam's campaign maintains their ads are legal and are not violating contribution limits. Bucky Mitchell, an attorney for the committee, contends that the first ad launched by Florida Grown focuses "on issues and public policy rather than express advocacy or electioneering on behalf of a candidate." In the ad, Putnam talks about how he is guided by faith and that he has learned to work hard.

— Levine also has a political committee that paid for more than $4 million worth of television ads, but Ulvert stressed that the initial ads discussed issues such as oil drilling and guns and not Levine's campaign for governor. He noted that Levine has started to pay for new television ads directly out of his campaign account in the last few months.

— An organization known as The Collective Super PAC, which is linked a national group that promotes black political candidates, has taken out ads in south Florida that sharply criticize Gwen Graham, one of the Democrats running for governor. The group supports Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum.

But the organization has not registered with the state and is not reporting to state authorities how it is paying for the ads. Graham's campaign maintains this is against Florida law, which states a committee must register with the state if it is receiving contributions for the purpose of influencing a state election.

— National Liberty Federation, a nonprofit group, is running television ads sharply targeting U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, who is running against Putnam. Organized under the part of the tax laws for social welfare organizations, this group is not registered with the state and it's not revealing the source of its money.

Everett Wilkinson, the head of the group, says his organization has had "zero communication" with the Putnam campaign and that "we would never coordinate with a candidate."

Critics say state laws are flouted because the commission is slow to handle complaints and operates under too many constraints placed on it by the Legislature.

"They handle nickel and dime cases but overlook the huge problems of unregulated and improper spending," Herron said. "They will kill you to death if you don't file a report on time or don't put a disclaimer on a sign. But to deal with these big issues? It ain't happening."