Gov. Bush urges halt to secret donations

Published: Wednesday, October 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, September 30, 2003 at 11:25 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE - Gov. Jeb Bush said Tuesday that legislators should not be able to collect money in secret to help pay for campaigns waged for House speaker or Senate president.
Bush said he would support lawmakers closing a campaign finance law loophole that has allowed legislators to funnel more than $1.27 million into special accounts the past four years without ever disclosing the names of contributors to the public.
"I think there should be full disclosure of any political contribution," Bush said. "The best way to bring about finance reform is to have total transparency."
This past weekend the New York Times Regional Newspaper Group detailed that legislators since 1999 have used a loophole in the law to shield the identity of contributors, to raise large amounts of money from one contributor and to sidestep a ban against lawmakers taking money during their annual session.
Nearly $3 million has gone into the accounts of these "committees of continuous existence" that legislators have set up with their friends and political allies to support campaigns for House speaker or Senate president or other leadership posts.
The law creating these committees, known also as CCEs, was passed back in the 1970s and was designed to allow large groups to set up a political organization without having to list all of their "dues-paying members."
But many legislators have set up committees to assist their leadership bids and used the law to shield the identity of their contributors on filings with the state Division of Elections. The Internal Revenue Service requires that political organizations that wish to remain tax-exempt to list the names of donors in IRS filings, but the New York Times Regional Newspaper Group found several legislators had not complied with IRS rules.
Some of those legislators who failed to disclose the names of contributors to state elections officials include Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, Senate Appropriations Chairman Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, and Rep. Donna Clarke, R-Sarasota.
Bush was also critical of how the committees or "front groups" have operated. He said he appreciated the candidates who are voluntarily disclosing their contributors, but said, "I don't really appreciate too much the ones that aren't."
Two legislators who have set up these committees agreed on Tuesday to voluntarily hand over their contributor lists to the New York Times Regional Newspaper Group.
Rep. Jeff Kottkamp, R-Cape Coral, said those assisting his bid for House speaker had never discussed whether to disclose the names of contributors. Kottkamp's committee - called Florida Investment in Leadership Coalition - has raised nearly $35,000 and had hidden the names of those who contributed more than $28,000.
"I guess we never sat down and talked about it," said Kottkamp, whose list shows his committee has received $1,500 from U.S. Sugar Corp. and $20,000 from investor George Sanders and one of his companies.
Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Dania Beach, and one of two Democrats controlling a committee known as Business for Better Government, said he planned to submit new filings to the IRS that would disclose all contributors. He also turned over the names of those that had contributed nearly $133,000 to his committee.
"Until I read your recent story on CCEs in Florida, I was unaware of the requirement to report donor information to the IRS," Ryan said in an e-mail. "Now that I am aware of this requirement, the committee will file amended tax returns with the IRS to assure compliance with the law."
Bush met briefly on Tuesday with Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, and the two discussed pushing legislation to close the campaign loophole. Lee, who himself is considering setting up a committee to aid his bid for president, said if he does so, he would set up a Web site and disclose all contributors within 48 to 72 hours.
"If we don't do something to bring more accountability to how this money is raised and spent, we are going to continue to turn the public off," Lee said.
House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, and Rep. Allan Bense, R-Panama City, both said Tuesday they too would support changing the law to end the loophole that allows legislators to hide the names of contributors to CCEs. Both legislators disclosed the names of their contributors to committees they set up to assist their campaigns for speaker.
"The world needs to know who is giving to your campaigns," Bense said.
Byrd, however, made it clear he would not support limits to the amount of money that can go to "committees of continuous existence." Some CCEs set up by lawmakers have received huge donations from special interest groups either supporting or opposing legislation.
"The Republican way is full disclosure," Byrd said. "I would support requiring disclosure, but I would not support any limit on what a person can contribute."
One of the Republicans who has not disclosed the names of his contributors - House Majority Leader Marco Rubio, R-Miami - also said he would support changing the law.
"If legislation is filed to require contributors to CCEs be reported," Rubio said in a prepared statement, "I will fully support the legislation."

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