Roger Stone’s legal defense fund runs through Tampa

The address listed on Stone’s website belongs to a Tampa accounting firm owned by a power couple who are the go-to bookkeepers for numerous Republican candidates and campaigns.
Former campaign adviser for President Donald Trump, Roger Stone, leaves federal court in Washington on Feb. 1.  [AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais]
Former campaign adviser for President Donald Trump, Roger Stone, leaves federal court in Washington on Feb. 1. [AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais]
Published Feb. 22, 2019|Updated Feb. 23, 2019

The crass Instagram post that landed Roger Stone back in court on Thursday was like many of his public outbursts since he found himself at the center of the federal investigation into Russian election interference.

It was a plea for money.

“Help me fight for my life @”

And where should willing donors send the check, according to his website? To Tampa.

Perhaps some people would be surprised to see a Tampa connection to this wild saga. Those inside Florida politics — after a chuckle or a “Really?” or an “Oh boy” — were unfazed.

That’s because the address listed on Stone’s website belongs to Robert Watkins & Company, an accounting firm owned by its namesakes, Robert Watkins, and his wife, Nancy Watkins. They’re the go-to bookkeepers for numerous Republican candidates and campaigns — not just in Florida, but around the country.

Nancy Watkins is the treasurer for 37 active political committees in Florida, including one for Gov. Ron DeSantis, and 138 federally registered committees. She counts Super PACs benefiting President Donald Trump and Sen. Marco Rubio among her clients. They depend on her to audit millions of dollars each election cycle without error so they don’t get flagged with a campaign finance violation.

“There are about four people in the state that do that type of work,” said state Sen. Joe Gruters, also the chairman of the Florida GOP. “And the Watkinses’ reputation is impeccable.”

Nancy and Robert Watkins support the American Heart Association's 60th Tampa Bay Heart Ball on April 21 at the Marriott Waterside. [AMY SCHERZER | Times]
Nancy and Robert Watkins support the American Heart Association's 60th Tampa Bay Heart Ball on April 21 at the Marriott Waterside. [AMY SCHERZER | Times]

Veteran Republican strategist J.M. “Mac” Stipanovich put it this way: “Hopefully I’m not in the kind of trouble Roger is in, but if I was, Nancy would be the first person that comes to my mind.”

The Watkinses’ South Tampa firm is administering Stone’s fund, a donation-driven account to pay his mounting legal bills. Stone, who says he has liquidated many of his assets and is now renting his Fort Lauderdale home, estimates he needs $2 million.

How the Watkinses came to work for Stone, 66, is unclear. The company has been listed on Stone’s defense fund since at least August 2017, according to Internet webpage archives. By then, it had become clear that Stone was a person of interest in the special counsel Robert Mueller investigation.

Now under a gag order, Stone didn’t return a phone call. Robert Watkins, 67, referred questions about his firm’s Stone account to his wife, but Nancy Watkins, 63, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Like his former partner and fellow Trump insider Paul Manafort, Stone faces substantial jail time, accused of making false statements to authorities.

In last month’s indictment, Mueller accused Stone of being the middleman who sought a meeting on behalf of the Trump campaign with WikiLeaks to discuss thousands of hacked Democratic emails. Obstruction and witness tampering are among the charges.

The day of his arrest, Stone flashed the Richard Nixon “Victory” sign on the steps outside a federal courthouse, and he has peddled conspiracies about Mueller’s probe. On Thursday, Stone was forced by Judge Amy Berman Jackson to explain why he posted an Instagram picture of her head next to what appeared to be the crosshairs of a gun sight.

Stone called it a misunderstanding. Berman threatened to put Stone back in jail if he talks about the case again.

Asked if he thought his firm could be sullied by its association with Stone, Robert Watkins said he had “no such concern.”

“We’ve handled legal defense funds for lots of people,” he said. “I don’t see how this would impact that reputation.”

Nancy and Robert Watkins hardly resemble their embattled client. Stone relishes confrontation and basks in the spotlight.

The Watkinses operate behind the scenes. Their influence in Republican politics is evident mostly in campaign registration reports or at Palma Ceia fundraisers. They are mild-mannered, well-liked and have a reputation for doing everything by the book.

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, described Nancy as “intense” and “extremely detailed oriented.” Republican Victor Crist, a former state senator and Hillsborough County commissioner, called Robert “a very sharp and shrewd businessman.”

Crist served alongside Robert Watkins on the board for the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, the body that oversees Tampa International Airport. Then-Gov. Rick Scott appointed Watkins to the board in 2011, and he now serves as its chairman.

Despite their affiliation with hundreds of campaigns and committees over the years, the Watkinses have rarely run into controversy.

In 2010, when independent candidate for governor Bud Chiles made them the poster-children in his battle against Florida’s campaign finance system. Chiles stood in front of their South Boulevard office and dubbed it “ground zero for what’s wrong with Florida politics.” The complaint barely registered.

For all their differences, the Watkins family and Stone do share this: They’re long-standing fixtures of Florida politics, and they supported Trump as a candidate when many Republicans were reticent to embrace him.

Ahead of the 2016 Republican National Convention, Robert Watkins said, “I really believe it’s Trump’s time. He seems like a leader and agent for change — good change.”

Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Fasano said the Watkinses were “dedicated, loyal Republicans.”

“I’m not surprised (they’re representing Stone) because of their dedication to the cause,” said Fasano, also a Republican.

Others called it a business decision for a firm with almost unparalleled experienced in this realm.

Stipanovich, who is about as anti-Trump as any Republican can be, likened it to a lawyer who represents a murderer. Everyone deserves representation, he said, and Stone was wise to hire a firm with such credentials.

“The last thing Roger needs right now is compliance problems on top of his other problems,” said Gruters, whose Sarasota accounting firm competes with Robert Watkins & Co. He said he would take on Stone as a client, too.

“The sins of others can’t be put on us,” Gruters said, “Or, in this, on Nancy.”

Times Senior News Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.