Mysterious donor in Florida Senate races dumped $550,000 in ads for spoiler candidates

Much remains unknown about the company and where it got the $550,000 to dump what is estimated to be hundreds of thousands of political mail advertisements in the mailboxes of voters in Senate Districts 9, 37, and 39, three races that were seen as key to determining the balance of power of the Florida Senate.
Voters in Senate District 37 received dark money-funded mailers that featured little-known, no-party candidate Alex Rodriguez. The mailers aimed to “confuse” voters.
Voters in Senate District 37 received dark money-funded mailers that featured little-known, no-party candidate Alex Rodriguez. The mailers aimed to “confuse” voters. [ Times/Herald ]
Published Nov. 24, 2020|Updated Nov. 25, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — The mysterious company behind a half-million dollar contribution backing no-party candidates in three key state Senate races has attracted legal questions about its adherence to Florida law for campaign financing.

The company, Proclivity, is registered in Delaware, a state known for its corporate laws, according to the company’s registered agent. It is registered as a 501(c)(4), a status that allows it to engage in a restricted level of political activity and does not require it to disclose donors.

Its corporate status and $550,000 contributions to two political committees raise questions as to whether it should be registered as a political committee in Florida, said Mark Herron, a Tallahassee-based attorney who specializes in ethics and election laws.

Under Florida law, an entity must register as a political committee if it accepts more than $500 in a calendar year for electoral or political purposes. If Proclivity is deemed to be a political committee under Florida law, it could face administrative penalties or misdemeanor charges.

But only time and the company’s corporate filings will tell.

“The battle to find this may last years,” Herron said. “What’s the state attorney going to be more concerned about, murder or chasing paper in Delaware?”

Natalie Kato, a Tallahassee-based elections and campaign finance attorney, said the organization is still required to comply with the Internal Revenue Service, while noting that Florida laws on 501(c)(4) disclosures are “arguably vague.”

“If a 501(c)(4) cannot show that their primary purpose is advocacy, rather than political activities, then the organization could be subject to taxes, fines, or a revocation of their status under the Internal Revenue Code,” said Kato.

Proclivity’s $550,000 donation to two political committees — The Truth PC and Our Florida PC — was used to purchase mail ads that promoted no-party candidates in three Senate races, including one man whose candidacy is under investigation by Miami-Dade state prosecutors.

“The corporation appears it was set up to shield donors in this race. The public doesn’t know who the donor is because the donor is a corporation, and the corporation is a straw man,” said Leonard Collins, a Tallahassee-based attorney and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio’s former general counsel.

Proclivity’s mission statement includes “publicizing the positions of elected officials concerning” policies that benefit the “quality of life for families.” The year-old company, however, has no working phone and its address is a UPS store in Atlanta.

Proclivity, a first-time donor to Florida campaign and political committees, first popped up in campaign finance reports in early October, as first reported by Politico.

Much remains unknown about the company and where it got the $550,000 to dump what is estimated to be hundreds of thousands of political mail advertisements in the mailboxes of voters in Senate Districts 9, 37, and 39, three races that were seen as key to determining the balance of power of the Florida Senate.

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And, questions remain on why two women in their 20s with no known political experience would register as the lone agents of two newly created political committees. The women have at times flouted Florida election laws by late-filing campaign finance reports, which could lead to fines, according to state records.

“The fines are relatively minor,” Collins said. “Their issues are going to be what’s behind the curtain” if the state decided to look into Proclivity.

Juan Carlos Planas, an election attorney from Coral Gables who represented the Democratic candidate in the District 37 recount, said repercussions, if any, will be “slaps on the wrist.”

No word from Division of Elections

Officials with the Florida Department of State, which oversees the Division of Elections, did not respond when asked if the state was assessing fines to the PACs or if it plans to refer the case to the Florida Elections Commission.

Collins said that in the case of the political committees, the accounts are empty and it’s possible they have nothing to report. While they should have filed a letter saying so to comply with state law, that type of issue can generally be worked out, he said.

“They had a significant amount of money,” Collins said. “It’s someone who has firepower behind them.”

The committees’ registered agents who are responsible for balancing the books, according to Division of Elections records, are Sierra Olive and Hailey DeFilippis, two young women with no known political experience. Both women are from the Tampa Bay area, Olive from Palm Harbor and DeFilippis from Dunedin.

Attempts to reach Olive and DeFilippis by phone, email and social media have been unsuccessful.

According to Florida campaign finance law, political committees can be fined $50 per day for the first three days after the filing deadline and $500 per day thereafter.

It appears the political committees were only created for the purpose of buying the mail ads that promoted no-party affiliated candidates in the three competitive Senate races. The ads talked up the candidates as ones with progressive ideals in an apparent attempt to reach Democratic voters.

None of the candidates independently campaigned, and some lied about the details of their candidacy and were recently registered as Republicans.

Alex Rodriguez, the no-party candidate who likely swayed the outcome of Miami-Dade’s Senate District 37 race, admitted to the Herald that he lived outside of the district in Boca Raton, two counties away.

Miami-Dade state prosecutors are looking into his candidacy after the couple that lives at the house he listed on his sworn candidate oath told WPLG-10′s Glenna Milberg that Rodriguez hadn’t lived there in five years.

Winners press ahead

Despite the statewide — and national — interest around the intriguing circumstances of the races, the winners in all three Senate races have been picked and the results have been certified by state officials.

Sens. Ileana Garcia, Jason Brodeur and Ana Maria Rodriguez, three Republicans, were sworn in to the Florida Senate last week and have been welcomed by Democratic colleagues. Their Democratic opponents have conceded.

José Javier Rodríguez conceded his Senate District 37 race the day the recount ended with a final difference of just 32 votes, and has since criticized the integrity of the election and called for an investigation in a video message posted on Facebook. Alex Rodriguez received more than 6,300 votes out of the 215,610 ballots cast in the race.

Garcia, however, has pushed back on Rodríguez’s claims and has not yet acknowledged that prosecutors are investigating the no-party candidate in the race.

In a statement last week, Garcia called his criticism a “temper tantrum” and said she “will extend Mr. Rodríguez the grace he has been unable to muster for himself.”

President Donald Trump made significant gains in Miami-Dade County and cut into his 2016 deficit by more than 20 points. Trump improved his performance in Senate District 37 by more than 9 points, which probably helped Garcia win the district.

As the story of the no-party candidate gets national attention, Garcia has grown more vocal on social media. For most of the campaign, she stayed quiet, wiped her social media clean and ignored Miami Herald requests for interviews by phone, email and in person.

In a tweet Tuesday morning, the day after CNN’s reported on the issue, she pointed out that Rodríguez ran a close race when he flipped the seat in 2016, winning by about 6,000 votes in a race in which a no-party candidate received almost 10,000.

“Where was the outrage, trolls, threats and media?” she said.

In 2016, there was no coordinated mail campaign around the no-party candidate with talking points aimed at progressive voters. There was also no investigation into the integrity of the no-party contender’s candidacy.

Before a three-day recount determined Garcia had won by just 32 votes, she celebrated at Versailles Restaurant in Little Havana on Election Night alongside supporters and Republican Maria Elvira Salazar, who unseated Donna Shalala in Florida’s 27th Congressional District.

“I knew it was going to be difficult, but we were clear on what we wanted to do and what we wanted to get done in Tallahassee,” Garcia told the Miami Herald on election night. “So when that happens, there is a clear path.”