Rep. Gus Bilirakis sends out press release inflating amount of local fundraising support

Campaign manager Towson Fraser said he “made a mistake during the editing process.”
Congressman Gus Bilirakis speaks with reporters prior to the start of his Women's Forum at East Lake High School in Tarpon Springs on June 9. (MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE   |   Times)
Congressman Gus Bilirakis speaks with reporters prior to the start of his Women's Forum at East Lake High School in Tarpon Springs on June 9. (MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times)
Published July 16, 2018|Updated July 16, 2018

The press release blasted over the weekend touted an accomplishment that would make any congressional candidate stand out.

Between April and June, District 12 Congressman Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, raised $355,000 for his re-election bid, "almost 90 percent of which came from Floridians," claimed the campaign statement titled "Local Support Flowing for Bilirakis."

There is one problem: The accomplishment is utterly inflated.

A review of Bilirakis' finances shows that of the $355,000 raised in the second quarter, only 62 percent even came from individuals. The rest came from political committees, almost all out of state.

When the Tampa Bay Times asked about the discrepancy, campaign manager Towson Fraser said he "made a mistake during the editing process." Fraser, a longtime lobbyist, clarified he should have said about 90 percent of individual contributions, not total money raised, came from Floridians.

But even that is unclear. Candidates are required to provide data to the Federal Election Commission on individual donors who give more than $200. Of the 203 who gave more than $200 to Bilirakis in the second quarter, only 77 percent were Floridians.

The publicly available FEC data does not include donors who give less than $200. Fraser said those smaller donors bumped the individual total to be 90 percent from Florida. But he declined to share this data with the Times.

The false claim on Bilirakis' local support comes amid recent scrutiny of his special interest connections. The six-term congressman received $79,000 in the 2016 election cycle from the pharmaceutical/health products industry.

Bilirakis received the contributions while he co-sponsored legislation making it harder for the Drug Enforcement Administration to go after drug companies that distribute suspicious quantities of prescription pills to doctors and pharmacies.

That same year, 5,725 people died in Florida of opioid related issues, a 35 percent increase from 2015, according to a report from state medical examiners.

So far this election cycle, Bilirakis has received $50,200 from the pharmaceutical/health products industry, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. He has raised a total of $1.32 million since Jan. 1, with about half coming from political committees and special interest groups, according to FEC filings.

Bilirakis spokeswoman Summer Robertson said he co-sponsored the 2016 legislation to address "a very serious problem in our community in which many people with legitimate pain and prescriptions have difficulty getting their medication filled." She said the first time Bilirakis heard any concerns about the bill was after the publication of a Washington Post investigation in October, which detailed the influence industry lobbyists and lawyers have through political contributions.

She added: "Campaign contributions have no impact, whatsoever, on Congressman Bilirakis' legislative decision-making. He does what he believes is in the best interests of his country, community and constituents 100 percent of the time."

The leading Democrat challenging Bilirakis, former federal prosecutor and FBI agent Chris Hunter, said Bilirakis doing "the bidding of the opioid industry lobbyists who give him campaign money," is one issue that pushed him to quit his job as a prosecutor with the fraud section of the Department of Justice in Tampa to run for office.

While with the DOJ, Hunter led the investigation and prosecution last year of the owner and associates of A to Z Pharmacy of New Port Richey, which generated more than $100 million from a compounding pharmacy fraud scheme.

He has raised $422,874 in his first bid for elected office, with $14,250 coming from political committees, mostly tied to Democratic leadership committees, according to recent FEC filings.

Hunter will face Clearwater defense attorney Robert Tager and Tarpon Springs tax consultant Stephen Perenich in the Aug. 28 Democratic primary. Their second-quarter financial reports were not immediately available through the FEC on Monday, but both raised a fraction of Hunter's support in the first part of the year.

Correction: Gus Bilirakis is a Republican from Palm Harbor. An earlier version of this story had the incorrect city.