Watchdog group files complaint, says DeSantis violated campaign finance rules

It alleges he violated U.S. election law by transferring $86 million from his state-based PAC to a federal super PAC backing his presidential bid.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a fundraising picnic for U.S. Rep. Randy Feenstra, R-Iowa, May 13 in Sioux Center, Iowa.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a fundraising picnic for U.S. Rep. Randy Feenstra, R-Iowa, May 13 in Sioux Center, Iowa. [ BRIAN CAHN | ZUMA Press Wire ]
Published May 30|Updated May 31

A week into his official presidential campaign, Gov. Ron DeSantis and his political committee are being accused of violating federal election law for transferring $86 million from his state-based political committee to a federal super-PAC backing his candidacy.

The nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center alleged in a 52-page complaint filed Tuesday with the Federal Election Commission that the state-based Friends of Ron DeSantis committee transferred the money to the federally registered Never Back Down Inc., in violation of the federal campaign contribution limit of $5,000.

“The transfer of this colossal sum … is a brazen attempt to circumvent the federal campaign finance rules that are crucial to preventing corruption and establishing transparency about how our federal elections are financed,” the complaint states.

The watchdog group alleges that DeSantis “actively raised money through Friends of Ron DeSantis, in amounts unprecedented for a gubernatorial reelection campaign” and suggested the funds were “blatantly unnecessary after he had already won, particularly since he cannot seek a third term as governor under Florida law.”

Instead, the group suggests, DeSantis used his Florida office to conduct a pseudo-campaign for president with the financing of the state political committee by traveling across the country and to other nations. It cites news reports about the formation of his campaign staff, his strategy “to build a presidential war chest and publicly present himself as a viable presidential candidate,” and a February gathering of potential campaign contributors in Palm Beach.

The complaint said that the governor’s travel to Japan, South Korea, Israel, and the United Kingdom, was “ostensibly to promote international trade, but with a clear goal of promoting his viability as a presidential candidate by bolster[ing] his foreign policy credentials.”

On May 15, the governor attempted to distance himself from the state political committee when the committee filed papers with the Florida Secretary of State to be renamed the Empower Parents PAC, which is now led by DeSantis supporter and state Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill.

DeSantis’ former Florida PAC also gave $1 million to a similarly named Florida committee called Empower Parents Florida, which was established the same day that the former DeSantis PAC changed its leadership. Florida House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, is chairperson.

Ingoglia, who is chairperson of the former DeSantis state committee, said the goal of the $1 million contribution is “to help fulfill our political committee’s mission of supporting issues and candidates who are committed to parental rights in education. They share the same principles and we wanted to support their efforts.”

$86 million leftover from reelection as governor

By the time DeSantis officially became a candidate on May 24, his state-based committee had raised more than $225 million and spent $140 million, leaving $86 million in soft money that the complaint alleges is intended to be used by Never Back Down Inc., which was formed in March by ex-Trump allies to “encourage” DeSantis to run for president, the complaint says.

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The Campaign Legal Center is asking the Federal Election Commission to investigate Never Back Down for the alleged violations and impose sanctions, including civil penalties. By law, the committee cannot coordinate directly with DeSantis or his presidential campaign. Last week, Never Back Down told the New York Times that it plans to spend $200 million to back the Florida governor’s presidential run, and the complaint alleges that the PAC “has been using and/or reportedly intends to ... make over $944,000 in independent expenditures supporting DeSantis.”

“Soft money undermines federal campaign finance laws because it is, by definition, money raised and spent outside the scope of those laws,” said Saurav Ghosh, a former enforcement lawyer at the Federal Election Commission and director of federal campaign finance reform at Campaign Legal Center, in a written statement.

“We’re talking about funds from billionaires and corporate special interests who could exert massive influence over the candidate they are financing,” he said. “Laws banning these funds from being used to seek federal office are there for a reason — to prevent corruption, promote transparency, and ensure that wealthy special interests can’t rig the system even further in their favor.”

There has been speculation for months about how the DeSantis team might legally move money from the Florida political committee to a federal committee that would back a presidential run.

“It would be a clear-cut violation of the federal soft money prohibition for DeSantis or any other candidate to take money from any entity that operates under state law and then shift it into a federal super PAC,” Ghosh told the Miami Herald last week.

Rep. Byron Donalds made similar transfer in ‘20

The former DeSantis state PAC may have looked to the example of a one-time DeSantis ally turned Donald Trump supporter for precedent in transferring the funds.

A Florida PAC formerly connected to former state Rep. Byron Donalds transferred money in 2020 to a federal super PAC supporting Donalds’ successful run for Congress.

The Campaign Legal Center filed a complaint to the FEC arguing that the transfer violated the ban on soft money, but the agency’s commissioners deadlocked and took no action against Donalds or his committees.

“The FEC has shown a very unfortunate unwillingness to robustly enforce the soft money prohibition,” Ghosh said.

Last week, a federal judge ruled in a separate campaign-related complaint that the DeSantis-backed federal political committee called Ready for Ron could not deliver 200,000 copies of petition forms that it gathered to the DeSantis campaign.

The forms, which included the contact information from the signatories, urged DeSantis to enter the race. But U.S. District Judge Randolph Moss ruled on May 17 that the activity by the committee would amount to an in-kind contribution and violate federal fundraising limits.

“To hold otherwise would invite massive evasion of the campaign finance laws by allowing those seeking office simply to wait to declare their candidacies or to invoke the testing-the-waters exception until after they have assembled war-chests of non-FECA-compliant [Federal Election Campaign Act] contributions,” Moss wrote.

McClatchyDC reporter Ben Wieder and Times/Herald Tallahassee reporter Ana Ceballos contributed to this report.