The financial muscle behind Patrick Murphy's Senate bid: his father

Patrick Murphy and his father, Thomas P. Murphy Jr., whose Coastal Construction Group also donates to his son’s campaigns.
Patrick Murphy and his father, Thomas P. Murphy Jr., whose Coastal Construction Group also donates to his son’s campaigns.
Published May 16, 2016

Patrick Murphy burst from obscurity in 2012 by winning a bitter showdown with tea party Rep. Allen West. Now 33, the South Florida resident is strongly positioned to jump to the Senate, a remarkable rise that has national Democrats optimistic of regaining a majority.

Murphy is telegenic, even-tempered and well-connected. Last week, Vice President Joe Biden campaigned with him in Orlando.

Behind him stands one major asset. His father.

Thomas P. Murphy Jr. has built homes for Oprah Winfrey and Dan Marino, and dozens of hotels and resorts. And he has constructed a path for his son in the most fundamental way: money.

The elder Murphy has given more than $1 million to super PACs supporting his son's campaigns and used donations to help create allies in Florida and Washington. His Coastal Construction Group has been the source for more than $180,000 given directly to the candidate's House and Senate campaigns.

A month before Patrick Murphy launched his first campaign, his father gave $10,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Last August, Tom Murphy contributed $33,400 to the committee, which a few months earlier endorsed his son.

The financial muscle gave the younger Murphy standing in the party, and he has been able to build on that, drawing financial support from across Florida and the country. He is the Democrats' best chance for taking the seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio. No other Florida Senate candidate has raised more money.

But the family advantage has provoked criticism from Democrats and Republicans who cast him as a rich kid and a hypocrite because he laments the influence of money in politics while benefiting from his father's largess.

"It's not unlawful. But it's just a way of playing the inside game of politics that I find distasteful and I think a lot of voters would find distasteful, too," said Pam Keith, a long-shot Democratic candidate who volunteered for Murphy's first House campaign.

"This is about politics by the wealthy for the wealthy," she said.

Also rising are questions from his rivals about a potential overlap between Murphy's work in Congress and the family business. His father's company has partnered with developers who have an interest in visas given to foreign investors, a program Murphy has supported on Capitol Hill.

Murphy has publicly said he doesn't think his family business has ties to the visa program, overlooking that Coastal Construction is the general contractor for the $1.7 billion Miami Worldcenter project, which has actively sought Chinese investors. Murphy holds as much as $5 million in Coastal stock.

Developers on that project and other businessmen with interests in the visa program, known as EB-5, have given to Murphy's campaign or the super PAC backing him.

The candidate said contributors get no special treatment. He said he gives the same commitment to any size donor: "I'm going to be the hardest-working congressman I can be and hopefully the best senator this state has ever seen."

In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Murphy said: "My dad is my best friend and mentor. I talk to him at least once a day, maybe twice a day. I think a lot of people in public service and a lot of people in business are grateful for their parents' help. I'm no different from them."

Tom Murphy, 67, did not return messages left at his company.

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A Republican, Tom Murphy has long been politically active and has given money to Charlie Crist, Alex Sink, George W. Bush and Mitt Romney. (Patrick Murphy also donated to Romney and was a registered Republican until shortly before launching his first campaign.)

The builder has given at least $1.7 million since 2000, according to Federal Election Commission records.

That does not include money Tom Murphy's wife or employees of Coastal Construction, which include Patrick Murphy's two older brothers, have given the candidate. All told, people affiliated with the company have given Patrick Murphy at least $182,000 since 2011.

Current donors can give a maximum of $5,400 covering the primary and general elections. But no such limits apply to super PACs.

In 2012, Tom Murphy sank $550,000 into two super PACs helping his son, one of which produced a controversial ad showing West, the Republican incumbent, in a boxing ring punching women. Now the elder Murphy has given $500,000 to Floridians for a Strong Middle Class, the committee set up to aid Patrick Murphy's Senate bid. More than half the money collected has come from Tom Murphy.

That has put the candidate in a delicate spot because he says he "hates" super PACs and has deemed big money politics "disgusting." Like many Democrats, he calls for a reversal of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Citizens United.

In the interview with the Times, Murphy reiterated his opposition, and noted he has been endorsed by the group End Citizens United and supports legislation to accomplish those means. At the same time, he said he can't fight opponents "with our hands tied behind our backs."

Democratic rival Alan Grayson, an outspoken liberal congressman from Orlando, has mocked Murphy for relying on "Daddy's PAC." Grayson also points out that Murphy is a stockholder in Coastal Construction. Those shares were given to Murphy by his father just after he won the 2012 election.

One campaign finance reform proponent does not find Murphy to be inconsistent. "The biggest test for any candidate is whether they are really going to go to bat for reform," said Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21 in Washington.

But Wertheimer said the super PAC raises a question of whether Tom Murphy, like other big donors, is using it to sidestep contribution limits.

Patrick Murphy's campaign, by law, cannot coordinate with the super PAC and the candidate said he and his father do not discuss it. But the campaign has made it easier for an outside group to use his likeness in advertising.

A five-minute-plus video recently posted on Murphy's website shows the candidate walking down a beach with people, strolling through an orange grove with a farmer and working the phones in a generic office. There is no sound. This is called "b-roll" and candidates in both parties do it, exploiting loose enforcement by the FEC.

"The statute says that outside spending groups can't republish materials prepared by a campaign, that if it does that constitutes coordination," said Wertheimer, who has lodged formal complaints about the practice to no avail.

Asked about the video, Murphy projected ignorance. "Of course I'm going to have videos and pictures on my website," he said. When told it appeared to be an invite for an outside group, he flatly responded, "It's just a video."

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Murphy also played down questions about his support for the EB-5 visa program. His campaigns have received contributions from Florida developers who tap into the funding source. Foreigners who invest at least $500,000 are given green cards; many participants are from China. The program has enjoyed broad support, but also has come under scrutiny for fraud and a perception that it sends the wrong message about the country's immigration system.

Nicholas A. Mastroianni II, a major EB-5 player in Florida, has, along with family members, given Murphy about $25,000. He also has used companies to give at least $50,000 to the pro-Murphy super PAC. Another EB-5 developer and Murphy donor is Jeffrey Berkowitz, who is developing SkyRise Miami, a $430 million entertainment and observation tower.

Coastal Construction was a partner in that project, but no longer is, according to Murphy campaign spokesman Joshua Karp. Company officials could not be reached. A registered lobbyist for SkyRise, Brian May, is part of the team working for the super PAC, records show.

Murphy said Mastroianni and Berkowitz are friends and he gives them regular updates on the campaign. But he said he did not recall specific conversations with them about legislation he sponsored in 2014 to make the EB-5 program permanent. He also did not recall meeting with Liu Yu, a New York-based lawyer who specializes in the field. The two appeared in a 2014 article on a Chinese-language website.

Murphy said that the EB-5 program has enjoyed bipartisan support and that it brings investment and creates jobs.

"I'm a member of Congress and I'm not actively involved in the family business … so feel free to reach out to them and learn more about what they do," he told reporters on a conference call his campaign arranged last month to blast Grayson over alleged ethics issues. "But as far as I know, they have not done any projects to do with EB-5."

In February, Coastal, in a partnership with Tishman Construction, was named general contractor for the Miami Worldcenter, a shopping, entertainment and housing project planned for 27 acres in the city's downtown. Financing will come, in part, from EB-5 investors.

Project developers and family have given Murphy more than $30,000 in campaign contributions, plus $25,000 to the super PAC.

Murphy's campaign said Friday it was unaware that Coastal was involved in the project.

The role Murphy's father plays is likely to be amplified as the campaign heats up. Murphy says his family has "humble roots" and that his overarching goal is to see others climb the ladder.

"To me," he said of his father, "he's the epitome of the American dream. We need more of that in this country."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.