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DeSantis has so far appointed more donors to political posts than Scott did

Officials appointing leaders from their donor pools is a typical practice, experts say.
Gov. Ron DeSantis talks during a news conference on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022, at the Miami Dade College Wolfson Campus.
Gov. Ron DeSantis talks during a news conference on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022, at the Miami Dade College Wolfson Campus. [ ALIE SKOWRONSKI | Miami Herald ]
Published Oct. 20, 2022

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ war chest is almost bottomless. And it’s padded with donations from officials he appointed to positions throughout the state.

While it’s common for governors to stack commissions, boards and task forces with their supporters, DeSantis has done so at a significantly higher rate than his predecessor, according to an analysis of campaign contributions and political appointments.

Since assuming office in 2019, DeSantis has accepted roughly $3.3 million in campaign donations from about 250 people he selected for leadership roles — a 75% increase in the number of donors appointed compared to former Gov. Rick Scott’s first term in office, and over 10 times the amount of money.

That’s based on an analysis by American Bridge 21st Century, a Democrat super PAC specialized in opposition research. The group, which shared its analysis with the Miami Herald, scrutinized contributions to the governor’s 2018 and 2022 campaign funds, as well as his associated political action committee, Friends of Ron DeSantis, and his congressional campaign funds.

Donations included in the analysis ranged from $1 to $400,000.

So far, DeSantis has raked in about $189 million to his campaign and PAC ahead of next month’s election.

“There’s nothing Ron DeSantis won’t do to line his coffers — including selling state appointments for contributions to his campaign,” Drew Godinich, a spokesperson for American Bridge, wrote in an email.

DeSantis’ office didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

Fred Piccolo, DeSantis’ former communications director, pointed out that Scott had largely self-funded his campaign, which could account for some of the discrepancy between the two, although he emphasized that he had no role in the appointment process during his time in the DeSantis administration.

Related: DeSantis committees have raised over $100M. A national GOP group is giving him more.

Donor-appointees

At the top of the list of donor-appointees are Craig Mateer and Keith Wold, who gave $400,000 and $300,000, respectively, to Friends of Ron DeSantis.

Mateer, a hospitality, logistics, and real estate businessman, previously served on the Florida State University Board of Trustees, and he was appointed to the Board of Governors of the State University System in March after he contributed $200,000 in February 2020 and $100,000 in May 2021. He gave another $100,000 in June 2022.

Wold donated to the governor in 2018 and was appointed to the Government Efficiency Task Force in August 2019.

Mateer declined an interview with the Herald through a board spokesperson. Wold did not respond to a request for an interview.

Officials appointing leaders from their donor pools is a typical practice, said Kedric Payne, vice president and general counsel with the Campaign Legal Center. The practice doesn’t typically pose legal questions, Payne said, but is more an issue of public perception.

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While governors are legally permitted to select campaign donors for these positions — barring an explicit agreement that the money is given for the purpose of securing the appointment — it may appear to some constituents as a quid pro quo deal, even if it isn’t.

“The public perceives this to be pay-to-play,” Payne said. “It’s perceived to be a contribution given with a wink and a nod to get the appointment.”

‘Different dynamic’

While DeSantis has maintained the norm by appointing financial supporters to these positions, the degree to which he’s done so differs significantly from that of his predecessors, said political analyst and former Florida U.S. Rep. David Jolly.

The Republican network in Florida is close-knit, and many incoming Republican governors maintain that network by appointing the usual donors and party leaders, Jolly, a former Republican, said. But DeSantis ran as an anti-establishment candidate, Jolly said, and several lifelong Republican players in the state opposed his election to the office.

Related: DeSantis gets big check as part of a surge in giving from GOP megadonor

“There’s a little different dynamic, and there are probably more seats that DeSantis personally had a hand in than in previous administrations,” Jolly said. “DeSantis is also someone with incredible national potential, and so people are using their campaign dollars to invest in a very long-term relationship with him.”

Members of the Republican establishment likely donated more money to DeSantis ahead of this election to make up for past contention, Jolly said, while others may have been excluded from his close circle, leaving more room for his staunch supporters.

“DeSantis probably more than any other Florida governor in recent history is overt about using his office to reward personal loyalty and allegiance and to mete out punishment and to ostracize those who are not with him,” Jolly said.

One such donor is Stephen Joost, a former member of the Jacksonville City Council and founding partner of the Firehouse Restaurant Group. DeSantis reappointed Joost — first appointed by Scott in 2016 — to the University of North Florida Board of Trustees in December 2021 after he cut checks totaling $25,000 the previous month.

Joost originally supported DeSantis’ opponent, Adam Putnam, in the 2018 Republican primary, he wrote in an emailed statement. But the governor’s work with the university system during his first term won him over, and though he stepped down in February after about five years on the board, Joost cited reduced tuition, increased student population and a rise in the rankings as examples of these successes.

“My main loyalty lies with UNF,” Joost wrote in an email. “The record of accomplishments is clear, and that is why and only why I am supporting the Governor.”

Joost was one of 17 appointees identified by American Bridge who donated to DeSantis within one month of their appointment, four of which contributed $10,000 or more.

This includes Troy Link, the chief executive officer and president of Jack Link’s Protein Snacks, who donated $187,000 to DeSantis-affiliated groups, including $57,000 in October 2021 — less than a month before his appointment to the Enterprise Florida Board of Directors.

Other DeSantis appointees are longtime leaders of their groups, including Patrick Neal, a member of the 12th Judicial Circuit’s Judicial Nominating Commission and DeSantis donor who contributed over $200,000 to his PAC, gubernatorial and congressional campaigns.

Neal was originally appointed to the commission by former Gov. Jeb Bush, and he was reappointed by former Govs. Charlie Crist and Scott as well as DeSantis.

Neal wrote in an emailed statement that it is “not wrong or illegal” that governors appoint supporters to these positions and said it was natural that governors would appoint people whose values align with theirs.

“Governors can appoint people who support their ideas,” Neal said. “Governors are allowed to have people who are their friends and loyal to their thoughts and positions.”

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