Investigation into Rick Scott ends with regulators deadlocked on campaign violations

The Federal Election Commission chairperson said there was reason to believe Scott broke the law.
U.S, Sen. Rick Scott speaks during the Road to Majority convention at Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center in Kissimmee on Friday, June 18, 2021.
U.S, Sen. Rick Scott speaks during the Road to Majority convention at Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center in Kissimmee on Friday, June 18, 2021.
Published July 16, 2021|Updated July 16, 2021

A three-year probe into Sen. Rick Scott has ended with a federal panel deadlocked on whether the Florida Republican and a political committee he once led violated campaign laws during his 2018 bid for U.S. Senate.

A 3-3 split decision along party lines by the Federal Election Commission, made public Friday, comes despite the commission’s general counsel concluding there was reason to believe Scott broke the law. The general counsel recommended further investigation into Scott and his former political committee, New Republican PAC.

In a blistering critique of the stalemate dated Thursday, the commission’s chairperson, Shana Broussard, and Commissioner Ellen Weintraub said it was “clear” that Scott’s activities warranted a deeper review. They accused Scott of “finding a dormant PAC and commandeering it for his purposes.”

Scott spokesman Chris Hartline said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times: “This matter was dismissed on June 10th. We can understand why Democrats still can’t get over the fact that Rick Scott won in 2018 but it’s probably time for them to move on.”

At issue is Scott’s involvement with New Republican PAC, a political action committee first created in 2013 by a Republican operative. A complaint filed by the organization End Citizens United alleged that Scott illegally used New Republican PAC to raise money for a Senate bid before he was officially a candidate and that he coordinated with that political committee after he became a candidate, another violation of federal law. Super PACs like New Republican can raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, while contributions to candidates are limited to $5,000.

For most of its existence, there was little activity coming from New Republican: it raised comparatively little money in the vast world of federal campaigns, spent even less and didn’t generate much attention. That changed in May 2017 when Scott, then Florida’s governor, was named chairman of the committee and employed several close allies, including his former chief of staff, one of his top fundraisers and a consulting firm that worked on his previous campaigns. Fundraising immediately picked up and the committee reported $1.2 million, the federal investigation found. Its new stated purpose was to support President Donald Trump and his ideals.

Scott left New Republican before the end of the year and in April 2018 he made the long-expected announcement that he would run for U.S. Senate. On the same day, New Republican PAC said in a press release that it was now “focused on the election of Rick Scott” and the committee launched a new pro-Scott website.

Money flooded into New Republican, and the committee, which hadn’t purchased an advertisement in four years, spent $30 million to aid Scott’s Senate campaign. The vast majority went to commercials critical of Scott’s Democratic opponent, incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson. Scott ultimately defeated Nelson in an election decided by 10,033 votes out of 8.19 million ballots cast.

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Federal investigators found that before Scott was even a candidate, New Republican PAC paid for a poll that assessed his viability in the race. The Federal Election Commission’s general counsel noted in a December report that New Republican hadn’t conducted polls for any other potential Republican candidates.

In a further blurring of the lines between the candidate and a purportedly independent committee, Scott was the featured guest at a New Republican fundraiser in March 2018 “in his own home,” the general counsel wrote, and he spoke to New Republican supporters on a conference call in August 2018. Former Scott staffers remained involved with the committee after he left.

The general counsel concluded that all this activity indicated that Scott may have illegally raised money for his Senate campaign through New Republican before he became a candidate and that he remained involved with the committee after his departure.

However, in what has become a persistent trend since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission landmark ruling spurred the creation of super PACs, the Federal Election Commission stalemated. The commission is made up of three Democrats and three Republicans, and a majority is needed to take action. In the 11 years following Citizens United, the commission has never voted to further investigate or penalize a candidate for coordinating with an independent super PAC, said Adav Noti, senior director for the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan watchdog group.

“It makes a joke of those limits on contributions,” Noti said.

Tina Olechowski, spokesperson for End Citizens United, said the inaction demonstrates that the Federal Election Commission is “broken.”

“Rick Scott knew what he was doing and very likely knew he could get away with it, even if he was caught red-handed, which he was,” Olechowski said.

Olechowski said her organization has not decided if it will sue the Federal Elections Commission to compel the board to take action, “but all options are on the table.”

Gentry Collins, listed as the treasurer for New Republican PAC on federal campaign documents, did not respond to an email. The committee has reported raising $1.50 in 2021.