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Mystery money boosts campaign to limit Florida ballot measures

Keep Our Constitution Clean has formed a political committee and a nonprofit “dark money” group to hire petition gatherers to pursue signatures for an amendment that would limit future efforts to amend Florida’s constitution.
[Times (2016)]
[Times (2016)]
Published Aug. 19
Updated Aug. 19

A secretive organization with the goal of thwarting amendments approved by voters after the 2020 election cycle has spent more than $800,000 on paid petition gatherers in the last four months, using funds from undisclosed sources and raising the specter of another high stakes fight over the future of energy regulation in Florida.

The organization calls itself Keep Our Constitution Clean and says its purpose is to keep the state’s premier legal document uncluttered by special interest measures.

But activists involved in other petition drives say they believe the group is linked to the utility industry, which is opposing a proposed amendment that would deregulate the state’s monopoly utilities, the way the telecom industry was deregulated 37 years ago.

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Keep Our Constitution Clean has formed a political committee and a nonprofit “dark money” group to hire petition gatherers to pursue signatures for an amendment that would require that any amendment voters pass in the future would have to be passed twice by voters before becoming law.

While Keep Our Constitution Clean has filed an annual report with the Division of Corporations, as required by law, it has not filed a disclosure of its donors as required for nonprofits by the IRS and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

A spokeswoman for the organization said the group has sought a six-month extension on its IRS disclosure but she would not say whether it has submitted its nonprofit paperwork to the state as required by law.

“We operate under the current system and the legal structure. What you are questioning is the structure. We did not design the structure,’’ said Sarah Bascom, the spokesperson for Keep Our Constitution Clean. “We are operating under the same legal structure as all other groups.”

The group appears to have bipartisan roots.

Three Broward lawyers who have ties to Florida Democrats — Jason Blank, Jason Haber and Richard Corey — are the registered agents for the non-profit and opened the political committee. Blank referred all questions to Bascom, who would not say who the organizers or the donors are.

Bascom Communications works closely with Republicans and some of the largest corporate interests in the state, such as Associated Industries of Florida and one of its top funders, Florida Power & Light. And it has hired an out-of-state petition gathering firm called Silver Bullet, run by Tim Mooney.

But none of them claim to be the organizers of the effort and those people, whoever they are, have no interest in telling voters who is bankrolling them.

“Are the funders the utilities? The answer is no,’’ Bascom said. “I can’t go into detail.”

Another law firm, Tallahassee-based Ausley McMullen, filed the incorporation papers Jan. 24, 2018, as the first ideas emerged from the Constitution Revision Commission, including a proposal to deregulate utilities.

Among the firm’s clients is TECO, the Tampa-based electric company. Another law firm the Times/Herald learned is working with the group is Gray Robinson, whose client list includes Gulf Power. Florida Power & Light and Gulf Power are both owned by NextEra Energy.

Neither Florida Power & Light, Tampa Electric Co. nor Duke Energy responded to requests for comment.

The incorporation document for Keep Our Constitution Clean states that the purpose of the nonprofit organization “is to further the common good and general welfare of the people of Florida by promoting civic awareness and public discourse on the purpose of Florida’s Constitution and engaging in education and advocacy to promote a responsible amendment process.”

Bascom said Keep Our Constitution Clean “is not focused on any particular issue or amendment,” such as opposition to the effort to deregulate utilities, raise the minimum wage or ban assault weapons.

“Instead, we are focused on Florida’s process,’’ she said, adding that the “Pass It Twice” idea is required in one other state, Nevada.

Florida’s opaque disclosure laws have previously allowed the state’s utility industry to hide behind a political committee and nonprofit group to undermine voter access to a proposed constitutional amendment to expand residential solar use in Florida. The solar industry amendment would have encouraged a broad-scale solar market in Florida by removing the ban on third-party sales..

But the utilities backed a rival amendment they claimed would have “protected” the right to solar. They spent more than $22 million, created a political committee known as Consumers for Smart Solar, and employed hardball tactics to effectively price out the solar-industry amendment.

The utility-backed political committee paid petition gatherers more than $5 per signature and, when the solar industry couldn’t compete with the price and ran into conflicts with its petition gathering firm, it withdrew the amendment.

Consumers for Smart Solar claimed its utility-backed amendment was a pro-solar plan, but the solar advocates argued the proposal would constrain solar energy expansion in Florida.

After a utility insider admitted to an industry audience that the idea was intended to deceive voters, voters rejected the amendment. Bascom was the utility industry’s spokesperson for the 2016 effort.

This year another group has emerged to threaten the monopoly hold on Florida’s energy market and it says it sees the utility industry employing similar tactics.

Gainesville-based Citizens for Energy Choices is pushing an amendment that would deregulate the monopoly utility industry, opening the market to competition for natural gas, solar, and other alternative energy sources. The organizers of Citizens for Energy Choices fear that Keep Our Constitution Clean is a front group for the utility industry because it has fueled a price war for petition gatherers.

Organizers of other petition campaigns told the Times/Herald that Keep Our Constitution Clean, and another petition effort called Florida Citizen Voter, have raised the costs of gathering signatures by escalating the wage scale for petition gathering and hiring many of the itinerant workers operating in Florida.

“I would bet my mortgage it’s being funded by utility money,’’ said Alex Patton, chair of Citizens for Energy Choices. He said that while efforts by Keep Our Constitution Clean have obstructed his organization’s signature-gathering efforts, “I wouldn’t call them effective.”

According to the Division of Elections website, as of Friday, his group had validated 389,674 of the 766,200 needed to make it to the ballot.

Patton made similar charges last month against a group headed by Florida Citizen Voters, another obscure petition-gathering effort. The group says it is pursuing a constitutional amendment to allow only citizens to vote in Florida — something that’s already required by law — and last month declared it has more than twice the number of signatures needed to get on the 2020 election ballot, ending its petition gathering drive.

The group paid up to $5 for each signature and swamped county supervisor of elections offices with thousands of petitions, forcing many of them to hire additional staff to meet deadline requirements to validate the signatures.

Patton said he believes the effort is part of an organized strategy to make it more difficult for the energy amendment to make it to the ballot.

Once Florida Citizen Voters collected enough signatures needed to qualify for the ballot, its signature gatherers were urged to start working to put Keep Our Constitution Clean on the ballot.

In a July Facebook post, one of Mooney’s organizers, Mark Jacoby, told his signature gathering crews they would now switch to the Keep Our Constitution Clean effort to keep making money.

“The new initiative is simple,’’ Jacoby wrote. “... If you want to make a change to the state constitution, you have to have your issue passed by the voters TWICE. They vote on it one year, and if it passes, then it automatically goes onto the next ballot to be voted on again.”

He said they would pay $4 for each signature collected and 5 cents for printing each petition.

Because of the transitory nature of the business, petition gatherers make more money when they carry more than one petition. For example, someone holding a petition for Keep Our Constitution Clean may also be attempting to get signatures for the All Voters Vote initiative to open Florida primaries, or the plan to raise the minimum wage in Florida to $15.

But during this election cycle, documents provided to the Times/Herald show that Jacoby’s parent company, Let the Voters Decide, required signature gatherers to sign a non-compete clause. The clause prohibited them from carrying any petition related to the energy amendment and it specifically required them “to provide service, as needed, aimed at successfully opposing any Energy Amendment Initiative.”

Bascom, however, denied that Keep Our Constitution Clean has forbidden its signature gatherers from carrying other petitions.

“There is nothing in our contract that requires a non-compete for anyone,’’ she said. “These are private companies that have their own politics and relationships within their industry. That has nothing to do with us.”

Jacoby said “the non-compete agreement was specifically for the Citizen’s Only issue, which has since been concluded and qualified for the 2020 ballot” and referred all other questions about Keep Our Constitution Clean to Mooney. Mooney said he was on his honeymoon and was not available for comment.

The Division of Elections reported that Keep Our Constitution Clean had 9,293 of its signatures validated as of Friday.

The shadowy effort exposes the loophole in state and federal disclosure laws as it relates to political influence. Florida law does not prohibit dark-money groups from contributing to political committees via in-kind contributions and effectively allows them to shield donors from voters. But the lack of transparency has some election watchdog groups concerned.

“Regardless of what state law says, this kind of behavior deprives the voters of important information that they need to know about who has the ability to place items on the ballot for election day,’’ said Liza McPherson, director of Common Cause of Florida. “This is bad for democracy.”

Federal law allows special interests to form politically active nonprofits as 501(c)(4)s and 501(c)(6)s. These organizations can receive unlimited corporate, individual, and union contributions but they do not have to make those contributions public. Although their political activity is supposed to be limited, the IRS has done little to enforce those limits, according to Opensecrets.org, a non-partisan political fundraising watchdog.

Bascom would not explain why the group’s donors do not want the public to know who they are. “We are not hiding behind a 501(c)(4),’’ she said. “We are not required to disclose. We have nothing to hide.”

Bascom also justified the creation of a 501(c)(4) as necessary to avoid criticism.

“In our political environment, there are groups pushing amendments and some dare to disagree with the amendment process, they are opening themselves up to different types of blow back,’’ she said.

Keep Our Constitution Clean “began in 2018 as an effort to educate the Constitution Revision Commission about the implications of their many proposals to amend the Florida Constitution,’’ Bascom said.

In 2018, the group hired two Ausley lawyers, Stephen Craig Emmanuel and Major B. Harding, a retired Florida Supreme Court justice, to lobby for Keep Our Constitution Clean. In an op-ed written by Harding, he described the organization “as a group of concerned businesses and Floridians.”

Harding spoke out against several of the amendments before the Constitution Revision Commission, but when unrelated amendments were bundled together, the group did not organize a “vote no” campaign, nor did it spend any money — until this year.

In April, the group proposed two amendments intended to erect barriers to amending the constitution: the “vote twice” proposal and a second amendment to raise the threshold for amendments to become law — to two-thirds of the vote, instead of 60 percent. Bascom said they are not collecting signatures for the two-thirds vote effort.

“Having learned the lesson of 2018, [Keep Our Constitution Clean] now seeks to give voters a chance to take the necessary time to understand the complicated issues it’s asked to place in the Constitution,’’ she said.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@miamiherald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas. Miami Herald staff writer Samantha J. Gross contributed to this report.

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