Watchdog group files complaint over funding behind ghost candidate scandal

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington is asking for an investigation into political operatives working for FPL and others.
In this Oct. 26, 2020 file photo, an election worker sorts vote-by-mail ballots at the Miami-Dade County Board of Elections, in Doral.
In this Oct. 26, 2020 file photo, an election worker sorts vote-by-mail ballots at the Miami-Dade County Board of Elections, in Doral. [ LYNNE SLADKY | AP ]
Published Oct. 27, 2022|Updated Oct. 27, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — The secret fundraising network created by political operatives working for Florida Power & Light and other clients appears to have violated campaign finance laws and should be investigated, according to a complaint filed Thursday with the Federal Elections Commission by a Washington-based watchdog group.

Citing reports published in the Miami Herald, Tampa Bay Times and the Orlando Sentinel, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) said that the operatives pitched clients on a funding structure with the intent “to illegally hide the identities of the true source or sources of contributions. "

By routing contributions through nonprofit entities they controlled to super PACs, they were able to steer hundreds of thousands of dollars into election-related activities without the public knowing who was behind it, the complaint said.

Related: FPL funds secretly paid for a spoiler candidate in a 2018 Florida race

Such a so-called “dark money” scheme violates the Federal Election Campaign Act, which requires the true source of political contributions to be disclosed and bars contributions in the name of another.

“When political contributions are made through dark money groups, the public is denied their right to know who is influencing their elections,” Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington President Noah Bookbinder said in a statement. “Campaign finance laws are meant to ensure transparency in elections so that voters can make an informed decision based on all the facts.”

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington is asking the FEC to investigate whether the dark money groups and the officials that controlled them broke the law. They want investigators to refer any findings to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution.

Five nonprofits, seven individuals named in complaint

The complaint lists five nonprofits, tracks contributions totaling $1.27 million to federally registered super PACs in 2020 and names seven individuals.

Among the nonprofits cited in the complaint is Grow United, a political committee at the center of the so-called “ghost” candidate scandal, which funded mailers promoting no-party candidates as part of a 2020 scheme to siphon votes from Democratic candidates in three state Senate races. The three ghost candidates have since faced fines or were prosecuted for election law violations.

Related: Sham 2020 Florida Senate candidate faces fine by state ethics panel

Grow United was chaired by Richard Alexander, the Alabama-based operative and associate of Jeff Pitts, a political consultant to FPL who ran Canopy Partners and previously led Matrix, an Alabama-based consulting firm.

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Documents authored by Pitts and correspondence detailing the fundraising scheme were anonymously leaked to the Miami Herald and other news outlets.

The documents show that in the fall of 2018, FPL sent $200,000 to another nonprofit controlled by the operatives, Broken Promises, to aid the political campaign of a spoiler candidate in a Gainesville state Senate race in an apparent effort to benefit Republicans.

Related: This Florida utility's secret cash helped GOP win Gainesville state Senate seat

Broken Promises was registered to a UPS box in Washington, D.C. Records show its first donation was $25,000 to a political committee called Consumers for Energy Fairness, which then passed $25,000 to Ron DeSantis’ political committee.

Because of its nonprofit status, it Broken Promises didn’t have to disclose its donors, so FPL’s contribution was untraceable until documents from Matrix were leaked after Pitts tried to set up a rival consulting firm using FPL and other clients of his former employer. FPL has called the documents “fake” and denied having any record of making the contribution.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed an IRS complaint against Broken Promises in 2020 alleging that it broke federal tax and election laws by engaging primarily in politics, not social welfare activities, as is required under IRS laws. But Broken Promises shut down two weeks after the complaint, and the complaint was dropped.

The FEC complaint filed this week states that “there is reason to believe that an Unknown Respondent or Unknown Respondents, which may include corporations like Florida Power & Light, knowingly made contributions in the name of another to” five federal PACs — Wingman PAC, American Valor PAC, Senate Leadership Fund, Concerned Conservatives Inc., and South Florida Residents First — and that the recipients “knowingly accepted such contributions while falsely reporting they were made by” six nonprofits controlled by the operatives.

The complaint cites a memo written by Pitts, which names the nonprofit entities to be used in the dark money network.

The other nonprofits cited in the complaint include the Center for Advancement of Integrity and Justice, Florida Promise, and Stand Up for Justice.

The individuals named in the complaint are treasurers for the organizations: Alexander, whose sister worked with Pitts; Sean Jason Anderson, who records show previously worked at Matrix; Paul Kilgore; Lisa Lisker; Caleb Crosby; Abby Dupree, and Nancy H. Watkins. Efforts to reach the individuals for comment on Thursday were unsuccessful.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington’s analysis concluded that the nonprofits contributed to super PACs benefiting the 2020 congressional campaigns of Republicans Carlos Gimenez, Scott Franklin and Dane Eagle.

Following the money

The nonprofits “knowingly permitted their names to be used to effect a contribution in the name of another by permitting the contributions to be falsely attributed to them,” the complaint alleges.

In addition to prohibiting donations made in the name of another, federal law requires political committees like super PACs to report the identity of the true source of contributions. If a nonprofit is acting as a conduit for a contribution, the true source of that money must also be reported.

“If these violations were knowing and willful, they are also subject to criminal penalties and referral to the Department of Justice,” the complaint states.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington used the reporting from the Herald and other newspapers and, combined with its own research into the fundraising patterns, concluded there was an attempt to skirt federal campaign disclosure laws.

“Voters need to know who is funding efforts to impact elections, especially as dark money groups try to evade accountability and mislead voters by hiding their donors,” Bookbinder said in a statement. “It’s time we put an end to dark money groups that obscure the source of their funding in violation of the law in order to secretly influence our elections.”