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State Senate Race - Report: FPL used dark money to keep control


Andrew Caplan  

 

    The long-kept secret of who funded an independent candidate's campaign to help ensure Republican state Sen. Keith Perry retained office has finally come to light.

    Last week, the Miami Herald reported receiving a trove of documents, including emails, texts and financial records, showing that Florida Power and Light, one of the state's largest utility providers, was behind a nonprofit that bankrolled $200,000 in dark money for former Gainesville city commissioner Charles Goston's state Senate run.

    FPL and Goston's campaign had one mission: siphon votes from Democratic challenger and University of Florida physician Kayser Enneking. Doing so would give Perry the needed edge in a closely contested race that would help ensure Republicans kept control of the Florida Senate.

    It worked.

    Perry narrowly won his re-election campaign by about 2,000 votes, while Goston, a longtime Democrat-turned NPA, pulled about 4,300 votes.

    The Gainesville Sun's award-winning coverage of the 2018 race showed that Republicans working on Perry's campaign also coordinated dark money mailers and TV ads in the Democratic primary race, in an effort to pin candidate Olysha Magruder against their client. When that didn't work, Goston's campaign saw a sudden influx of cash from similar sources, as well as GOP operatives.

    In one instance, Gainesville-based political consulting firm Data Targeting, which Perry used for campaign advertising, paid for records from UF on behalf of Goston. Those records were then used in an ethics complaint against Enneking, which was dismissed.

    Though The Sun reported that Republicans orchestrated behind the scenes, it largely remained unclear where the bulk of Goston's PAC money originated until the Herald's reporting.

    Enneking says the outcome still stings four years later, adding that she likely won't seek public office again.

    "It wasn't American and it's not democratic," she said. "It's just unbelievably disappointing that we have not lived up to our constitutional ideals."

    FPL linked to Broken Promises funding

    In fall 2018, after the primary election had passed, a political committee called Friends of Charles Goston popped up. Ernesto Martinez, a longtime Gainesville resident and Goston supporter, was listed as the group's lead officer.

    Within weeks, the PAC received a $20,000 donation from a shell nonprofit based in Washinton, D.C. The nonprofit, dubbed Broken Promises, then spent approximately $115,000 on in-kind advertising for Goston's campaign over the course of a month.

    It's unclear if Goston, who blamed local Democrats for losing his seat on the Gainesville City Commission, ever knew the origins of the funding. He made clear he didn't care what others thought.

    He regularly defended the campaign tactics, telling The Sun that "dark money is not illegal" and "voters don't have a right to know anything." Goston was unavailable for comment due to health reasons.

    Records show Goston's PAC had its first donation from Broken Promises on the same day the group was created by "Sean Anderson," a mystery man to many. The nonprofit's mailing address led back to a UPS mailbox, though a store employee previously told The Sun that neither the nonprofit or Anderson had a box in their name at that location.

    Due to its nonprofit status, Broken Promises didn't have to disclose its funding source, making tracing the origins of funds nearly impossible. What's more, the nonprofit had yet to file a tax form with the Internal Revenue Service at the time of The Sun's investigation.

    IRS filings now show the nonprofit in 2018 received $200,000 and had $161,000 in expenses. It also states the group used an Alabama address and claims its purpose was to "promote social welfare" and was "developing and advocating for legislation, regulations and government programs to improve social, environmental, economy and social environment."

    Subsequent years show the nonprofit received less than $50,000, a benchmark that doesn't require disclosure of financial information.

    Top utility officials denied any wrongdoing and told the Miami Herald that it had no records of ever paying Broken Promises. But documents leaked to the outlet directly connected FPL to Broken Promises.

    The news organization reported receiving records stashed away in an internal server of the utility's former political consulting firm, Alaba-based Matrix. The records, which include emails, letters, texts banking statements and financial ledgers, "mark the clearest instance of FPL cash being directly linked to a series of election scandals rocking Florida politics," the Herald reported.

    But was it legal?

    Campaign laws allow FPL to contribute to political campaigns — and it frequently does.

    Campaign finance records show the utility donated more than $230,000 to the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee during Perry's 2018 run. During that same time frame, the committee put $242,000 toward Perry's re-election bid.

    But federal and state laws forbid the corporation from using other people to use "straw donors" in its name. Nonprofits also are not allowed to primarily engage in politics, which in this case it almost entirely did.

    Adav Noti, a senior director and attorney with the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C., and former attorney for the Federal Elections Commission, told The Sun in January 2019 that campaign finance laws are set up to prevent people from hiding behind such tax-exempt organizations.

    Still, little action was taken to hold the groups accountable due to its mysterious setup.

    In December 2020, the watchdog group Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility (CREW) filed a complaint to the IRS, citing The Sun's coverage. The group said Broken Promises had violated federal law "by failing to properly disclose its political contributions" and "was being used as a pass-through for political contributions."

    Records reveal long-kept secret

    Matrix employees kept detailed records of their activities, including a ledger of FPL's political spending in the 2018 election cycle, according to the Herald.

    Entries show FPL gave two deposits of $100,000 each, making up all of Broken Promises' revenue for the year. More than half of that was used on mailers for Goston, who, unbeknownst to many local voters, was exiting the local Democratic Party.

    Texts suggest that then-Matrix CEO Jeff Pitts and FPL Vice President Daniel Martell had control of two other nonprofit groups run by Anderson, who was listed as a former Matrix lobbyist.

    "Bottom line is we are the ones with the check books and in control (of the nonprofits) 100 percent," Pitts told Martell in a text received by the Herald.

    Pitts, who later left the firm in 2020 to start his own consulting company, is in a legal battle with Matrix founder Joe Perkins, as the two are suing each other.

    The utility's desire to control the Legislature for its benefit isn't particularly new. Aside from recent efforts to influence news coverage, harass journalists and dwindle down newsrooms that may offer critical pieces on FPL, additional reporting shows it secretly tried to buy a municipal-owned utility, crafted legislation to keep control of the solar energy market and push rate hikes on customers.

    Enneking is unsure what made her a target, other than being a moderate Democrat. She has never truly been outspoken against the utility industry, though she has advocated for progressive policies and the need for clean, renewable energy. She says she now wonders if FPL runs the Republican Party or vice versa.

    "That's a lot of money from one special interest to have a very clear voice in the state Senate," Enneking said. "(FPL) showed that they can swing a race by themselves. It impresses me how much power they have in this state."

    2018 Democratic primary race

    The odds were stacked against Democratic candidates months before FPL involved itself with Goston's PAC, though dark money began flowing beforehand.

    New reporting shows the utility — with the help of Republican operatives — also used similar tactics during the primary race when local activist Olysha Magruder faced off with Enneking.

    Mass mailers and commercials began circulating to promote Magruder. The ads said they were paid for by the Liberation Ocala African American Council PAC, which had yet to register as a committee with the state when ads began airing.

    The Ocala group's $100,000 came from the nonprofit Mothers for Moderation, which also was funded by FPL, the Herald reported. And in 2018, records show the utility contributed nearly $14 million to Mothers for Moderation.

    Another PAC, Moms Speak Out, pushed out TV ads on behalf of Magruder and attacking Enneking. The group was operated by Leainn McInnis, of Gainesville, who used an email address on documents that link to Republican operative Stafford Jones' company, Data Services of North Florida.

    There were repeated calls for Magruder — now a current candidate for state House — to denounce the ads and dark money, but she hadn't until the GOP ties were reported. She has repeatedly denied ever knowing the origins of funding and demanded an apology from Republicans who denied having any knowledge of the incident.

    Three local TV stations ultimately pulled the ads following The Sun's reporting and a cease-and-desist letter from Enneking's campaign team.

    Perry has maintained over the years that he knew nothing about the advertising for his campaign or his opponents.

    "I don't coordinate, have knowledge, or plan with any of these groups," he told the Herald.

    Calls for investigation into FPL, candidate campaigns

    During 2018, multiple ethics complaints were filed against Goston regarding his campaign activity, though nothing stuck. One was kicked back as being "legally insufficient," while another was passed over by the elections commission.

    There were growing demands from voters and elected officials for then-State Attorney Bill Cervone to investigate due to Goston and supporters running afoul of campaign finance law, some calling his actions fraudulent. However, Cervone, a Republican, said he wasn't interested in "political sour grapes" and that neither his office or a grand jury should be used for "retribution" simply because their candidate lost.

    He later denied being presented facts or a complaint to act on, according to the Daytona Beach News-Journal. Gainesville resident Sam Collins, who filed one of the ethics complaints against Goston, previously told The Sun that he tried to present facts to Cervone's office but was turned away.

    "To say something smells funny is easy, especially for folks who lost," Cervone told the News-Journal in 2021. "... I can't just go on some fishing expedition because the person who lost the election is upset."

    Now, longtime Tampa Democratic Congresswoman Kathy Castor has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the utility over its use of dark money and reports that it sought to manipulate elections and coverage in its favor, the Herald first reported.

    "Generally, electric utilities should operate in the public interest and it appears that FPL and its officers use dark money, pressure campaigns and illicit, and possibly illegal, activity to disadvantage the citizens of Florida," Castor wrote in a letter Thursday to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland.

    No charges have been filed against anyone involved in the election.

    Fears of similar moves would be made across the state

    Following Enneking's loss to Perry, there was a growing fear that the tactic would be used more widely around the state.

    Though having third-party candidates run to split votes is not necessarily new, using massive corporations and dark money have become an increasingly cheaper option for some.

    In March 2021, Frank Artiles, a former Republican state senator, was arrested and charged with multiple felony charges after bragging about how he recruited a friend to enter a state Senate race and pulled votes from another candidate.

    Data Targeting, Perry's go-to political strategy company, also was entangled in the case, as it paid Artiles roughly $90,000 to be a consultant.

    Artiles asked an auto parts salesman, Alex Rodriguez, to enter the race to pull votes from Democratic incumbent Jose Javier Rodriguez. Alex Rodriguez, hoping the last name would create confusion, pulled in 6,300 votes, giving Garcia a win by a mere 32 ballots.

    Artiles promised his friend roughly $44,000 in all for his help. Some of Artiles' expenses related to his role were also turned into Data Targeting as expenses, the News-Journal reported. He was later charged with making multiple excessive campaign contributions and conspiracy to do so.

    Investigators also have gathered documents to suggest Data Targeting played a role in the three state Senate races that included ghost candidates. Evidence from the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office shows Tallahassee pollster Ryan Tyson and political consultant Alex Alvarado to two political committees that funneled large sums of dark money into the ghost candidate campaigns in state Senate Districts 9, 37 and 39, the News-Journal reported. Neither the men nor the company has been charged with a crime.

    Data Targeting offers candidates a one-stop shop for all things campaign-related. In 2019, The Sun reported how the organization has slowly propped itself up as one of the leading political consulting groups in the state, having helped elect more than a dozen of Florida's Republican senators and half of the state's Republican congressmen. Gov. Ron DeSantis and Rep. Matt Gaetz are among its list of clientele.

    In 2020, the organization once again found itself heavily involved in state Senate races, as Democrats threatened to tilt the scales of power. The Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee — run by Senate President Wilton Simpson — spent more than $7 million on consulting, polling and advertising to Data Targeting.

    The GOP has controlled not only the governor's office but the state House of Representatives and state Senate every year this century, despite the fact that registered Democrats still outnumber Republicans statewide.

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