Donations to Fried, Crist campaigns linked to dark money group in election fraud case

Two Tampa-based political committees and one from Fort Lauderdale received a total of $85,500 from Grow United Inc. last October.
Nikki Fried and Charlie Crist
Nikki Fried and Charlie Crist [ Times files ]
Published Aug. 18, 2021

MIAMI — A dark-money donor at the center of a public corruption investigation into the 2020 election cycle helped back three groups that recently contributed to 2022 Democratic candidates for governor, including Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist.

Two Tampa-based political committees — Urban Action Fund and Democratic Action Network PC — and one Fort Lauderdale committee, Democratic Services Network, received a total of $85,500 from Grow United Inc. last October.

Grow United, which doesn’t disclose its money sources, paid for more than half a million dollars in misleading mailers targeting Democrats in three key Senate races in 2020. The group, whose address is a post office box in Denver and is registered in Delaware, is a crucial piece of evidence in the Miami-Dade state attorney’s high-profile investigation into a GOP-led vote siphoning scheme in Senate District 37.

Related: Secret donor name in Florida Senate races wiped from records, replaced

The Tampa committees, both chaired by Tampa Democratic consultant John T. Fox, contributed a total of $62,500 to Fried and Crist’s campaigns and political committees in June and July, according to state campaign finance records. The Fort Lauderdale committee, chaired by Broward elections lawyer Jason Blank, contributed a total of $31,500 to Fried and Crist combined in June and July before it was disbanded.

Kevin Cate, Fried’s media adviser, did not respond to specific questions about the donations.

“People or entities should only donate to Commissioner Fried or her political committee if they are committed to breaking the rigged system in Tallahassee with something new,” Cate wrote in a text message.

In a statement, Crist’s press secretary Samantha Ramirez defended the campaign’s small-dollar donations, which she said were from people driven to support Crist’s mission to “create a Florida for all.”

“Our grassroots campaign is on a mission to create a Florida for all, powered by nearly 8,000 small-dollar donors who believe in Charlie’s vision for our state, and every single donor who gives to Charlie knows that the only agenda they’re supporting is what Charlie has always fought for, the people,” Ramirez said.

$1.4 million from Grow United to Democrats in 2020 cycle

This is not the first time Grow United has made significant donations to help fund Democratic candidates. Grow United’s contributions in the 2020 election cycle totaled $1.4 million — $765,000 of which went to the Florida Democratic Party, the campaign arm of Senate Democrats and other Democrat-affiliated political committees. An additional $697,500 went to Republican political committees like Floridians for Economic Advancement, which made five-figure donations to the Republican Party of Florida earlier this year.

Grow United Inc., a tax-exempt corporation that is registered in Delaware, made $550,000 in untraceable contributions that funded political mailers that were sent to voters in Senate Districts 9, 37 and 39 in the month leading up to the Nov. 3 election. The ads portrayed no-party candidates that did no independent campaigning as candidates with progressive ideals in an apparent attempt to divert some votes from the Democrats in those races.

Former Republican state senator and lobbyist Frank Artiles and the no-party candidate in Miami-Dade’s Senate District 37 were both arrested on a series of charges related to the scheme in April. That race was decided by 32 votes out of more than 215,000 cast and ousted an incumbent Democrat.

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Grow United has not given money during the 2022 election cycle.

Fox, who chairs the Urban Action Fund and Democratic Action Network, declined to comment on specific contributions to his political committees. He said he learned of Grow United’s ties to the no-party candidate scheme through news reports.

In a text, he wrote: “as a Democrat supporting [Senate District 37 candidate José Javier Rodríguez], I can *enthusiastically* say I had no idea! Lol.”

Related: Trial may expose Florida's dark money behind spoiler candidate

Contributions made before 2020 election

The five-figure donations that have helped to at least partially back two current gubernatorial candidates happened last year before the general election. On Oct. 6, 2020, Urban Action Fund took $30,000 from Grow United, according to state campaign finance records. Two days later, on Oct. 8, Democratic Action Network accepted $27,500.

Urban Action Fund, which supports Democrat candidates, donated in June $3,000 to Fried’s campaign account and $15,500 to her political committee, Florida Consumers First. In July, it donated another $5,000 to her political committee. The group also donated $3,000 to Crist’s campaign account in July.

During the same two-month period, Fried and Crist accepted tens of thousands of dollars through their political committees and campaign accounts from Democratic Action Network, which also supports Democratic campaigns. Fried’s campaign and her affiliated political committee accepted a total of $33,000, while Crist’s campaign took in $3,000 in July.

Democratic Services Network, which disbanded last week, gave $3,000 to Fried’s campaign and $25,500 to her political committee in June. In July, it gave $3,000 to Crist’s campaign

Grow United has no information on file with the state of Delaware, where it is registered, and it is “delinquent and not in good standing” for failing to file its annual report with the state, according to its registered agent, The Corporation Trust Co.

An annual report would include more information about the entity, including its mission statement, an address and the name of at least one of its officers.