TALLAHASSEE — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday denied ever seeing memos from his political staff that laid out how wealthy donors and lobbyists could buy time to golf, meet and dine with the Republican by making lucrative political contributions.
Speaking with reporters following the Cabinet meeting, DeSantis said those memos "had no effect on me or anything that I’ve done.”
It was DeSantis’ first public comments since the Tampa Bay Times published internal documents from his political committee outlining how Florida’s rich and powerful could pay for access to the governor. The documents listed prices for certain activities with DeSantis, including $25,000 to golf with him and $250,000 for a one hour "intimate and high dollar” gathering.
According to emails obtained by the Times, DeSantis golfed with three lobbyists for Duke Energy in February after the Florida utility company committed $100,000 in political contributions.
Asked about this price structure, DeSantis would only say that he had “never seen those memos before." However, his political chairwoman, Susan Wiles, told his chief of staff Shane Strum on Jan. 20 that DeSantis and the first lady “approved” the fundraising plan, according to one memo. And his wife, Casey DeSantis, intended to play “an integral role in many of these activities,” Wiles added.
“This timeframe is relatively aggressive because it is the governor’s desire to fundraise and maintain a high political profile at all times — inside and outside of Florida,” Wiles wrote.
Wiles previously told the Times that this plan was never implemented.
Wiles has since been removed from DeSantis’ political committee, Friends of Ron DeSantis, and was ousted from her role with President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign. The Republican Party of Florida also recently replaced its executive director Jennifer Locetta, considered an ally of Wiles.
DeSantis would not elaborate on what led him to push for the removal of Wiles, an operative who last year he brought in to rescue his campaign and later named the head of his transition team. “I don’t have any more comment,” he said. But DeSantis confirmed reports that President Trump was involved in the shakeup.
“The president asked me to get the party in order,” DeSantis said. “Quite frankly, I had not been paying as much attention. I mean, I’ve been focusing on doing my job, but I think that we have the presidential race, we have key legislative races and I think we’re in a much better position to be able to move forward.”
DeSantis said the party had neglected voter registration, field operations and the on-the-ground work necessary to win in 2020. He noted that Locetta’s replacement, Peter O’Rourke, is someone Trump knows “personally” from his time working as a top official in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
When the Times/Herald read DeSantis’ criticisms and observations to state Republican Party chairman and state Sen. Joe Gruters, he said he was unaware of DeSantis’ comments and would need to call back later. He then texted a statement saying, in part, that “the Republican Party of Florida needed to change course in order to fully support the president’s re-election and our Republican candidates across the state.”
The seismic shakeup of the past week has left Republicans without one of their top political operatives in a state critical to Trump’s 2020 re-election chances. Many Republicans consider Wiles a crucial piece that led to both of Rick Scott’s gubernatorial victories and Trump’s win in 2016. She landed in Florida again late last year and guided DeSantis to a narrow win over Democrat Andrew Gillum.
Wiles also left her job at Ballard Partners, the powerful lobbying firm of top Trump fundraiser Brian Ballard.
In response to DeSantis’ comments on Tuesday, Wiles said: “As the state’s highest-ranking Republican, it is the governor’s prerogative to decide how best to support the President’s re-election and I respect that."
“I was honored to be a part of President Trump’s successful 2016 campaign,” Wiles added, "and I remain fully committed to the President’s re-election to a second term.”