Pro-Trump group alleges DeSantis breaking ethics laws with ‘shadow’ campaign

DeSantis has improperly benefited from not officially declaring as a presidential candidate, the letter alleges.
Then-President Donald Trump shakes hands with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as he arrives at Tyndall Air Force Base to view damage from Hurricane Michael, and attend a political rally, May 8, 2019.
Then-President Donald Trump shakes hands with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as he arrives at Tyndall Air Force Base to view damage from Hurricane Michael, and attend a political rally, May 8, 2019. [ EVAN VUCCI | AP ]
Published March 15|Updated March 15

The rivalry between former President Donald Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis escalated yet again Wednesday.

A pro-Trump super PAC publicized a letter it sent to the Florida Commission on Ethics alleging a series of violations by the state’s governor. Chief among them: Because DeSantis has not declared himself to be a candidate for president, the governor is improperly benefiting from campaign contributions and other political gifts, the letter says.

“DeSantis’ failure to declare his candidacy is no mere oversight; it is a coordinated effort specifically designed for him to accept, as unethical gifts, illegal campaign contributions and certain personal benefits that are necessarily intended to influence his official decision to resign from office under Florida’s resign to run law,” reads the Tuesday letter from Taylor Budowich of Make America Great Again Inc.

Trump himself raised more than $100 million for his own political committee before officially declaring his candidacy. At least $8.5 million of the money he raised for that committee, Save America, went toward his own personal legal expenses, CNN reported last year. But Trump was not an elected official while raising that money. DeSantis is.

The letter pointed to a Florida law that states that any elected official “who qualifies for federal public office must resign from the office he or she presently holds if the terms, or any part thereof, run concurrently with each other.”

Related: If DeSantis wins reelection, would he have to resign as governor to run for president?

State House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, said earlier this year that he believes that under that law DeSantis could still potentially run without having to resign his post. Both he and Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, have said they are open to changing the law if necessary. But no legislation to that effect has gained traction so far during this year’s legislative session.

Related: Florida may tweak resign-to-run law to aid a potential DeSantis 2024 run, leaders say

A spokesperson for the Florida Commission on Ethics said it had not yet received the letter from the pro-Trump super PAC. The spokesperson would not confirm or deny the existence of an ethics complaint, because ethics complaints are not public record at this stage in the investigative process.

Taryn Fenske, a spokesperson for the governor’s office, called the letter “frivolous and politically motivated” in an emailed statement.

“It’s inappropriate to use state ethics complaints for partisan purposes,” Fenske wrote.

Although he cannot run for reelection as governor, DeSantis’ state political committee raised nearly $10 million in February. The committee, Friends of Ron DeSantis, has more than $82 million on hand.

He’s also spent time touring and promoting the February release of his book, “The Courage to Be Free: Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival.” This week, the volume hit the top of the New York Times’ bestsellers list for combined print and e-book nonfiction.

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“Not only has Governor DeSantis personally solicited and accepted valuable gifts in connection with his shadow presidential campaign, but he has also enriched himself through a lucrative book advance and associated royalties,” Budowich’s letter alleged. “The (ethics) commission must investigate.”

The letter comes the same week that Trump continued his verbal crusade against DeSantis — Trump’s most formidable rival for the 2024 presidential Republican nomination should DeSantis seek it, according to recent polls.

At an event in Iowa, Trump compared DeSantis to Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney, Republican politicians with whom he’s butted heads in the past. And he also told a reporter with the conservative Daily Caller that, had he not endorsed DeSantis for governor in 2018, DeSantis would not have won and “would’ve had to go and work for some law office or something.”