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Florida Republicans ask for investigation into Bloomberg felon voter fundraising

The referral sets up what could be a dramatic legal fight over a crucial issue in Florida.

TALLAHASSEE — Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody on Wednesday asked state and federal law enforcement officials to investigate “potential violations of election laws” over billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s decision to help pay Florida felons' fines, fees and restitution to be eligible to vote.

In a letter dated Wednesday, Moody wrote that she instructed statewide prosecutor Nick Cox to work with law enforcement and any statewide grand jury that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis may want to call to address the issue.

DeSantis initially asked Moody to review the matter, the attorney general wrote.

The request to launch a criminal investigation escalates Florida’s two-year battle over felon voting rights and could set up a pre-election fight in Florida, a key swing state in the upcoming presidential election.

Florida voters in 2018 overwhelmingly approved Amendment 4, a constitutional amendment that restored the voting rights to many felons who had completed their sentences. The law was estimated to affect nearly 1.4 million people with felony convictions in the state.

Following the amendment’s passage, DeSantis and the Republican-led Legislature passed a law requiring felons to pay back all court-ordered fees, fines and restitution to victims before they could register to vote.

The law, which has been the subject of myriad court battles, dramatically undercut the number of felons who would be eligible to vote. An estimated 80 percent of felons in Florida are too poor to pay off their fees and fines, meaning they would be unable to vote. Most owe between $500 and $5,000.

In response, an organization, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, started collecting money to help people with felony convictions pay off some of their court-related fees and fines. It is legal in Florida to have someone else pay off your court fees, fines or restitution.

The group’s effort has been underway for more than a year, and the coalition has collected nearly $6 million dollars from celebrities and high-profile figures such as NBA star LeBron James. In Hillsborough County alone, the Rights Restoration Coalition has paid off more than $516,000 in court fees and fines for more than 400 people, according to county clerk data.

Bloomberg, a former Democratic presidential candidate, announced this week that he helped the group raise an additional $16 million to help felons who have completed their prison sentences pay off their fees so they can vote. The former New York mayor has also pledged $100 million to help Joe Biden win Florida.

But on Wednesday, Republicans, including Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, called for the investigation into Bloomberg’s plans.

In an early-morning interview on the Fox Business network, U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, a vocal ally of President Donald Trump, hinted Bloomberg’s fundraising efforts could be subject to a criminal investigation.

“This isn’t an exercise in democracy, this is cherry-picking votes, offering something of value for them,” Gaetz said, noting he spoke with Moody on Tuesday night. “I believe the Florida Attorney General has jurisdiction.”

Gaetz said Bloomberg may have violated a portion of Florida election law that reads: “No person shall directly or indirectly give or promise anything of value to another intending thereby to buy that person’s or another’s vote.”

The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition is a nonpartisan group, and the group’s executive director said this week that they are not targeting people registered to a particular political party.

However, Black Floridians, who tend to vote for Democrats, are disproportionately affected by the law requiring that fines and fees be paid. Before the passage of Amendment 4, about one in five Black Floridians could not vote because they had a felony conviction. A study by a University of Florida professor showed Black felons are also more likely than white felons to have outstanding fines and fees.

And the Washington Post reported Tuesday that Bloomberg is investing in the ex-felon population in an effort to boost Democrats — an article cited by Moody in her letter.

But offering to pay fines for a group that’s more likely to vote a certain way is not the same as buying a vote, said Tampa attorney Michael Steinberg, who represents one of the plaintiffs in the ongoing Amendment 4 litigation.

“Giving them the money, or paying their fines off, does not even guarantee that they will register to vote, and if they do register to vote, it doesn’t even guarantee who they are going to vote for,” Steinberg said, calling the push to investigate Bloomberg’s effort “nonsense.”

Related: Bloomberg raises millions to help Florida felons vote

Tampa Bay Times elections coverage

AMENDMENTS: State constitutional amendments on the 2020 ballot, explained.

FELONY CONVICTION? Here are Florida’s rules for registering to vote.

MAIL-IN BALLOTS: So you want to vote by mail in Florida? Here’s what you need to know.

POSTAL SERVICE CONCERNS: What’s going on with the U.S. Postal Service and should Florida be worried?

HAVE QUESTIONS ABOUT VOTING IN FLORIDA? WE HAVE THE ANSWERS: We’ve compiled information on voter registration deadlines, rules for voting by mail and more.

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