Senate candidate Carlos Beruff says he's an outsider, but record shows prolific campaign donations

Developer Carlos Beruff speaks against raising impact fees on Dec. 3, 2015, before Manatee County commissioners.
 (GRANT JEFFERIES/Bradenton Herald)
Developer Carlos Beruff speaks against raising impact fees on Dec. 3, 2015, before Manatee County commissioners. (GRANT JEFFERIES/Bradenton Herald)
Published May 18, 2016

TALLAHASSEE — Carlos Beruff bluntly declares politicians "worthless" in television commercials and proclaims himself an outsider ready to change Washington as Florida's next senator.

But a Times/Herald analysis of campaign donations shows the Manatee County land developer has been a major fundraiser for local, state and federal politicians. Since 2002, Beruff and his business holdings have made more than 730 campaign donations to support 103 political candidates — including a few Democrats — totaling just over $1 million. Congressional candidates, governors, county commissioners and presidential contenders have all benefited.

While Senate rivals say the donations prove Beruff, 58, is the ultimate insider wielding a checkbook to gain influence, Beruff says he is on the hunt for good governance.

"Giving money doesn't make you an insider," Beruff said. "If that's considered being an insider, I guess Donald Trump is an insider. That doesn't make sense."

Among the beneficiaries: Gov. Rick Scott, a super PAC that supported Jeb Bush's 2016 presidential bid, then-Republican U.S. Senate candidate Charlie Crist, a political committee run by former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, former President George W. Bush and two-time presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Scott collected $24,000 for his campaigns for governor in 2010 and 2014. Another $75,000 went to Scott's political action committee, Let's Get to Work.

Since 2010, Beruff has sent $61,200 to the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee, which helps recruit Republican candidates for the U.S. House. Another $40,000 went to the American Victory Fund Committee, which split its proceeds among U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, the NRCC and the RNC.

Beruff said the NRCC sold him on a plan in 2010 to regain the majority in the House. It worked, he said, but Republicans have lost touch with the people who elected them.

"The Republican establishment no longer stands for us," Beruff said.

No front-runner has emerged in the crowded Republican Senate primary. Scott has talked up Beruff but has not endorsed him. And the National Republican Senatorial Committee has veered from picking a favorite before the Aug. 30 primary.

The biggest recipient of Beruff's money has been the Republican Party of Florida. Since 2002, Beruff has given $122,000 to the party. Another $30,550 went to a national political committee RPOF controls.

Republican businessman Todd Wilcox, who like Beruff has tried to cast himself for Senate as an outsider, said Beruff's campaign donation history shows he is the consummate insider.

"It proves you can buy your way in," Wilcox said. "What I want to know is what has he gotten for all of those donations?"

In 2009, then-Gov. Charlie Crist appointed Beruff to the Sarasota-Bradenton Airport Authority, the Southwest Florida Water Management board and the State College of Florida board of trustees. Those appointments came in the years after Beruff used 21 limited liability companies he controls to give a total of $11,000 to Crist's campaign for governor and another $50,000 to the Republican Party of Florida that was under Crist's influence.

Scott reappointed Beruff to all three posts and picked him to lead a commission he created to look at hospital billing practices. Beruff laughs at the idea that Scott was rewarding him. Beruff said it felt more like a "punishment" because of how costly and time-consuming it was.

Beruff's donations in state and national races have been significant, but giving in local political contests in Sarasota and Manatee counties has been prolific. Beruff has made at least 355 donations totaling $152,000 to 49 candidates, from mayor to school board to county commission.

Beruff has eluded campaign finance limits by using LLCs to hand out dozens more checks than the average Floridian could give. In a 2012 Manatee County commission race, when donors could not give more than $500, Beruff donated $9,000 to Republican Betsy Benac using 18 LLCs, all with the same address as Beruff's Medallion Homes headquarters. Another LLC he controls sent $40,000 to a pair of political action committees to help Benac and attack Republican Joe McClash, who lost the bitterly contested primary.

"That's the law," Beruff said of using the LLCs. "I followed the law. I don't make the law."

Former state Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, a Sarasota Democrat and New College of Florida professor, said Beruff is adept at exerting influence all over local government.

"I cannot think of a race where his name doesn't come up," Fitzgerald said. "He's as much of an insider as you can get here."

Contact Jeremy Wallace at Follow @jeremyswallace.