Lizbeth Benacquisto gets benefit of state GOP money in District 19 primary

Published Apr. 16, 2014

The Republican Party of Florida says it does not engage in GOP primaries, but nearly $300,000 of its money has landed in a Super PAC supporting congressional candidate Lizbeth Benacquisto, newly filed campaign finance records show.

The money passed through several committees, illustrating how difficult it can be to trace, let alone determine an agenda. RPOF's response: We have no control once it leaves our coffers.

"How dare the party act stupid now like they don't know," said former Rep. Connie Mack, who held the District 19 seat until 2012 and is backing Benacquisto's rival, Curt Clawson. "I think the people of southwest Florida will reject the idea that a Super PAC funded by the party is going to tell us who our next member of Congress is going to be."

The money trail runs like this: Liberty and Leadership Fund, the pro-Benacquisto committee, took in $289,469 from another Super PAC called Liberty4Florida, which in turn got money from Free Speech PAC on Jan. 24. Free Speech PAC, a state committee chaired by Republican consultant Randy Nielsen, got $300,000 from RPOF on Dec. 26, 2013.

Flush with funds, Liberty and Leadership Fund — which also got $75,000 from U.S. Sugar and $50,000 from a PAC controlled by lobbyist Mike Haridopolos — has spent more than $478,000, much of it designed to undercut Clawson, considered to be the frontrunner.

As majority leader of the Florida Senate, Benacquisto is no stranger to the GOP power center in Tallahassee. Her campaign says it has no ties to the committee.

"Lizbeth has no affiliation or coordination with this or any other Super PAC," campaign spokeswoman Erin Isaac said in a recent email. "As a constitutional conservative, Lizbeth supports the First Amendment right of individuals and groups to exercise their free speech. If there are supporters out there who feel compelled to highlight the facts about people in this race, we are not inclined to deny them their constitutional right to do so."

Similarly, the RPOF denied any relationship.

"Once we transfer funds out of RPOF, we relinquish all control of those funds and we don't have a say in what they are used for at all," spokeswoman Susan Hepworth said in an interview.

She would not say why the RPOF gave the money initially to Free Speech PAC, citing internal strategy.

"The Republican Party of Florida is not engaging in CD19 primary. I can assure you of that," Hepworth said. "We make these transfers all the time. This is just another example of a time where we have transferred money. We cannot tell someone how to use them, or anything like that."

Liberty and Leadership Fund and Liberty4Florida share the same treasurer, William S. Jones, and the same address in Tallahassee, an office suite for Richard Coates' Tidewater Consulting. Coates does law work for the RPOF. He also was paid by Liberty and Leadership Fund for legal services.

Messages the Tampa Bay Times left for Jones were not returned.

The primary is Tuesday.