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Rick Scott’s political spending began months before he was an official candidate

Scott can spend on "testing the waters" activities but critics say it raises questions.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott announced his run for U.S. Senate on Monday April 9, 2018, in Orlando. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Florida Gov. Rick Scott announced his run for U.S. Senate on Monday April 9, 2018, in Orlando. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published Jul. 20, 2018|Updated Jul. 20, 2018

WASHINGTON – Rick Scott announced he was running for Senate on April 9 but had already spent $166,000 on political activity, including polling and video production, and had begun soliciting donations, records show.

On Jan. 1, 2018, Scott spent $31,000 for "political strategy consulting" with OnMessage, the Annapolis, Md., firm founded by top Scott consultant Curt Anderson, who helped guide the 2010 and 2014 gubernatorial campaigns. Just over a month later, Scott spent $50,000 for polling and $3,000 for video production with OnMessage.

The spending, all of it from Scott's own money, continued through March, according to Scott's FEC report, which became public Thursday. Critics say he should have been required to declare his candidacy earlier.

Scott's campaign told the Tampa Bay Times on Friday that he decided to run for Senate on March 26, the same day a message was sent out about a "major announcement" on April 9. He filed a statement of candidacy on April 6, though it was not received by the Secretary of the Senate until April 12.

The timing meant Scott did not have to file a campaign finance report for the first quarter, which ended March 31.

Prospective candidates can engage in testing the waters activities but there are limits, such as raising more money than what is "reasonably needed to test the waters" or "conducting activities over a protective period of time or shortly before the election," according to FEC guidance.

Those limits are open to interpretation, like a lot of campaign finance law.

"When you look at the amount of money he spent and all the activity, it looks to us he's broke that threshold (to be a declared candidate) and the FEC should be looking at it," said Adam Bozzi, spokesman for the campaign finance reform group End Citizens United.

But Adav Noti, an expert with the Campaign Legal Center who formerly worked in the FEC's Office of General Counsel, said expenses shown to him by the Times are "generally consistent with testing the waters."

Testing the waters activity have drawn scrutiny and FEC complaints in recent years. Jeb Bush for a long time in the 2016 presidential race exploited his status as a noncandidate in order to raise unlimited sums for a super PAC that supported him.

Related: Federal complaint alleges Rick Scott's PAC illegally skirted fundraising restrictions

Scott's campaign began sending fundraising emails on March 29, which triggered an FEC complaint from a Sarasota Democrat who said Scott should have been required to file disclosure reports before the second quarter, which just ended.

That report showed Scott has raised more than $21 million, including $14 million of his own money. The campaign last week  boasted of raising $10.7 million from individuals and that monster figure "does not include any candidate contributions."

The $10.7 million included more than $3 million Scott raised for a separate joint committee.

Democrats seized on that as another sign of "dishonesty" from a political figure who has fought in court protect revealing details of his blind trust and has obtained a disclosure extension from the U.S. Senate.

"Rick Scott didn't tell the truth about his campaign finances because he didn't want to reveal that he's using the money he's made through a lifetime of corruption, dishonesty and fraud to advance his self-serving political ambitions At every turn Scott keeps proving why he can't be trusted to look out for anyone but himself in the Senate," read a statement Friday afternoon from David Bergstein, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

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