Tampa General Hospital can’t give to Florida politicians. Its coffee shops can.

House of Coffee has given $226,000 to statewide candidates, most of them Republicans, since 2019.
Tampa General Hospital operates as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Federal law prohibits it from giving money to political candidates. However, its coffee shop is a for-profit business, so it can make political donations.
Tampa General Hospital operates as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Federal law prohibits it from giving money to political candidates. However, its coffee shop is a for-profit business, so it can make political donations. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Dec. 14, 2021|Updated Dec. 14, 2021

TAMPA — A festive scene greets patients and visitors entering Tampa General Hospital’s main campus.

A Christmas tree, a shiny reindeer, a menorah, gift-wrapped presents. Once visitors check in at the front desk, they can attend to their hospital business or pop over to sip Peppermint Mochas and Irish Cream Cold Brews at the Starbucks.

Unbeknownst to most of its customers, however, this Starbucks serves up more than holiday cheer. For the past three years, House of Coffee Tampa, the company that runs that location, has been making venti-sized campaign contributions to a select group of Florida political candidates.

It does this even though Tampa General operates as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Federal law prohibits it from giving money to political candidates.

House of Coffee Tampa, which owns and operates the coffee shops inside two Tampa General properties, is a for-profit corporation. That means it can give to candidates. According to state records, its three directors are top Tampa General officials: Scott Arnold, chief information officer; Cheryl Eagan, senior vice president of support services; and Mark Campbell, vice president of supply chain.

Hospitals have a stake in who gets elected to the Legislature. Lawmakers set the reimbursement rates for the state’s multibillion-dollar Medicaid program, essentially dictating how much state funding hospitals receive.

House of Coffee has given $307,000 to a political committee — Friends of Tampa General Hospital — since 2019, Florida Division of Elections records show. The coffee shop business is the political committee’s only donor.

Friends of Tampa General has passed along more than $226,000 to mostly conservative candidates and causes since 2019. In September, the committee gave $15,000 to Friends of Ron DeSantis, the governor’s political committee. That same month, it gave another $35,000 combined to the Republican Party of Florida, the political committee for Republican state Senate candidates and a political committee supporting Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby.

Donations made directly to Democratic lawmakers, who wield little power in Tallahassee, were rare. Separate $1,000 contributions were made to Sen. Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg, Sen. Shevrin Jones of West Park, and Rep. Fentrice Driskell of Tampa.

Two campaign finance experts told the Times/Herald that there didn’t appear to be anything illegal or improper about the hospital-related coffee business’ donations.

“They are operating a for-profit entity that is basically their commissary services. And that doesn’t raise any red flags. There are all sorts of business reasons you would do that,” said Natalie Kato, a campaign finance attorney in Tallahassee. “And they also decided this a perfectly legal way to set up political contributions.”

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It wasn’t until DeSantis’ first year as governor in 2019 that House of Coffee Tampa began donating in bulk through Friends of Tampa General. The political committee was created in August of that year.

This year, Tampa General Hospital was a vocal champion of one of DeSantis’ major pandemic-related initiatives. It was the first hospital in the state to treat COVID-19 patients with monoclonal antibodies, which are often given to patients post-infection. This summer, DeSantis promoted monoclonal antibodies at events across the state and on his social media — an approach that drew criticism from Democrats and medical experts for its lack of emphasis on the free, safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines that can be administered before infection.

The hospital’s CEO, John Couris, appeared at an August roundtable with DeSantis to offer support for the state’s push for more monoclonal antibody treatments. In September, when President Joe Biden’s administration cut back Florida’s supply, Couris warned that people in Florida would be hurt by the move. That scenario didn’t materialize. COVID-19 case rates dropped while the state hasn’t reported any shortages of the medicine.

When asked about the support for prominent Republicans, a spokesperson for Friends of Tampa General Political Committee, Amanda Bevis, replied in a statement: “Friends of Tampa General Political Committee seeks to advance policies and priorities that enable (Tampa General Hospital) to provide safe, innovative and high-quality care to the patients they serve.”

Friends of Tampa General Hospital’s treasurer, Nancy Watkins, is a prominent name in Florida Republican campaign finance circles who provides accounting services to committees supporting numerous candidates and causes. She declined to comment on Friends of Tampa General, but she noted that political committees not associated with a candidate are “generally nonpartisan and more interested in the issue or constituency they represent.”

A spokesperson for Tampa General Hospital did not respond to emailed questions about the extent to which the coffee shop profits are going to political donations.

Related: Florida hospitals made $6.3 billion in 2020. Could they see cuts?

“The House of Coffee is one of multiple vendors that lease space from Tampa General to provide conveniences to our patients and visitors, which is a common practice among health care systems across the country,” the spokesperson, Jennifer McVan, wrote in an emailed statement.

In addition to the Starbucks, House of Coffee Tampa runs the Healthplex Café at Tampa General’s Brandon Healthplex. In 2018, the Tampa Bay Times called House of Coffee Tampa “the hospital’s for-profit arm” when it gave $125,000 to the citizens’ group All for Transportation, which pushed for a sales tax increase to improve transportation infrastructure in Hillsborough County.

Attempts to reach Arnold, Eagan and Campbell, the Tampa General executives who run House of Coffee Tampa, were unsuccessful. The hospital did not make them available for an interview.

Related: DeSantis' prediction of a Florida monoclonal antibody shortage hasn't come true