By Tom Anderson
As the elections kick into high gear, the Florida statehouse in Tallahassee finds itself awash in millions of dollars in campaign money channeled through a network of shadowy political action committees whose backers and agenda are too often are too often concealed from the public.
The number of these types of groups in Florida has been on a steady rise since 2013, when then-Governor Rick Scott and the state legislature legalized these groups, despite warnings from public-integrity experts that they would corrupt elections and policy debates.
The groups, often bearing benign names like Floridians for Economic Freedom, operate with minimal oversight as they raise and spend unlimited amounts of money that are difficult to trace back to their original sources.
To be sure, these committees, or PACs, are required to disclose basic facts, including their mission and the candidates and issues that the groups support financially. But government watchdog groups point out that the information disclosed is so basic that it is often impossible to determine who actually benefits from the creation of the groups, who exactly is driving the agenda of the groups, and the precise reasons for the expenditures of the groups.
Consider a current case involving what, on the surface, appears to be a grassroots effort to alert Floridians about the apparent risks of genetic information in the hands of life insurers and long-term care insurers.
The effort has many trappings of a full-blown campaign, including a Facebook page, digital advertisements and a website, Protecting Our DNA, that offers the latest news on genetic privacy, discusses laws and legislative proposals to regulate the use of genetic testing by insurers, and urges voters to sign a petition.
But many important questions remain unanswered about this campaign, particularly since it turns out that it is backed by the powerful incoming House speaker, Chris Sprowls, as well as a largely opaque PAC he runs that has raised more than $4.2 million since 2015 and that currently has $1.8 million in its coffers.
The group, Floridians for Economic Freedom, is an unlikely player in the debate over the ethical, commercial and legal implications of genetic testing, in large part because its stated mission is to “support or oppose candidates for statewide, multi-county, legislative, county and municipal office and other activities not prohibited by Chapter 106 F.S.”
And so, exactly why it involved itself in this effort is unclear. It is also unclear whether any of the group’s big-money donors pushed it to launch the genetic campaign, how much money the group is spending on the campaign and who comprises “the movement” the campaign suggests it represents.
This kind of information is indispensable to the public given the political and policy stakes involved. It’s one thing, for example, if the grassroots campaign is a mere vanity project of the incoming speaker, who has used the issue of genetic testing to garner media coverage. It’s quite another thing if there are special interests behind the campaign, including business rivals of the insurance industry.
The impact of these groups has become so pervasive that Joe Gruters, the state GOP chairman, recently raised sharp concerns that the state’s campaign finance system has contributed to the proliferation of so-called dark money by allowing donations to flow from one opaque committee to another in manner that often masks the identity of the original donor.
It is the political equivalent of money laundering, albeit a legal one. Imagine, for example, that a real estate development company decides it wants to unseat a local lawmaker opposing one of the developer’s major projects. In this case, the development company does not want its role in trying to unseat the lawmaker from being discovered.
So how does the development company go about putting its secret plan into action? Thanks to the state’s murky network of PACs, there are more than a few ways, especially since several committees can be run by the same person.
The company could, for instance, donate $30,000 to a hypothetical committee called Floridians For Prosperity. The donation then could be transferred to another committee called Citizens for Economic Growth, which can in turn transfer the money to Save Florida’s Future. In the end, the last committee to receive the money is free to invest it in, say, advertising attacking the targeted lawmaker with little risk of exposing the development company’s role.
“Right now, legislators can’t take a cup of coffee from a lobbyist without breaking the law,” Gruters, a state senator from Sarasota, recently told the Orlando Sentinel. “But here, someone can run $50,000 through the process and use it against you or on your behalf and no one will know. It makes a mockery of the system.”
Tom Anderson is a public-integrity expert and investigator and resident of Florida