This story originally appeared in The Miami Herald on March 19, 2012.
The first time Florida Sen. Chris Smith, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, ran for office, he was just three years out of law school - a 28-year-old who still believed in the power of his lucky navy blue suit. As Smith puts it, he was a "nobody" from Broward County.
And yet, "these people would just show up" as he campaigned around the district. They were lobbyists. "[They'd] pat me on the back and say, 'Hey, I want to support you, ' and then give me a bunch of checks and say: 'Now remember me.' "
A new study by a journalism/watchdog organization gives the state of Florida a C- - not great, but not horrible, 18th overall - for the integrity of its political process. (Although that might be surprising to Broward residents who have seen one public official after another marched off to jail: The study focuses on the state level and looks at structure - not heads on a platter.)
The study by the Center for Public Integrity crunched more than 300 indicators for everything from how conflicts of interest are handled on the state insurance commission to how easily the public can access government information, to calculating the state's "corruption risk" grade.
In particular, Florida got high marks for its redistricting process and internal auditing. But in one area, Florida fell behind the rest of the country: Lobbyists enjoy free reign in the halls of Tallahassee, despite what seem like some of the toughest laws on the books.
"Well, that's a little bit surprising, " laughed super-lobbyist Ron Book. His firm, Ronald L. Book, P.A., represents more than 70 special interests ranging from Florida Power & Light to the City of Tallahassee. "Even when we didn't think the system was broken, we did lobbyist reform. And lobbyist reform allows for virtually nothing.... No gifts, no anything."
And yet, last year Book was able to pour more than $18,000 into lawmaker coffers, including a check to Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a Miami Republican, that was five times the campaign contribution limit, according to state financial records.
How is that possible?
Book's donation didn't go to Lopez-Cantera personally. It went to the "Common Sense Leadership Committee, " a Committee of Continuous Existence, or CCE, that is "associated" with only one lawmaker: Lopez-Cantera.
"I can't buy a senator a cup of coffee, " said David Ramba, another major Tallahassee lobbyist, "but I can sit across the table from him and slide across a $20,000 check and he'll pick up the tab for breakfast with his CCE that I just gave him the $20,000 check for."
A Miami Herald analysis of CCE filings from 2011 shows that $20,000 might be on the low side. Last year, on Sept. 16 alone, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida funneled $200,000 into the "Committee for a Conservative House, " a CCE associated with Republican state Reps. Richard Corcoran and Will Weatherford.
In total, more than $5.7 million dollars poured into lawmaker soft-money accounts last year. It goes a long way to explaining why Florida has one of the largest gaps in the country between the campaign finance rules on the books and the reality of campaign finance, according to the CPI study.
"It just seems like it's nothing more than the donors paying to play, " said Susan MacManus, a professor of Florida politics at the University of South Florida. CCE money can be used to pay for polling, travel, meals and consultants. It can also be rolled over into Electioneering Communications Organizations (ECOs) that essentially allow candidates to run attack ads, trashing an opponent, as long as the literature doesn't tell the voter for whom to cast a ballot.
"All these different ways and rules and what they can do, it seems like a labyrinth, " MacManus said. Once you start following the money, it's just "different kinds of paths to the candidate."
Last year, 98 percent of soft-money contributions that went to lawmaker-affiliated accounts went to Republicans. Experts say that makes sense because money flows toward the dominant party. There are CCE accounts tied to the Democratic minority, including the Committee for a Prosperous Florida (Reps. Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth and Jeremy Ring of Margate) and Citizens for Integrity in Government (Rep. Janet Cruz from Tampa). According to the Florida Division of Elections, Chris Smith also has an active CCE, but it has been empty for almost two years.
"I think a lot of people's votes are swayed by [big checks to CCEs], " said Sen. Mike Bennett, a Republican from Bradenton. He's linked to two different CCEs that took in more than $150,000 in contributions in 2011. "I would like to think that I'm, quote, the exception. But in order to do that you'd just about have to be lying to yourself. And I don't do that very well."
Lobbyist David Ramba, who is the registered agent on both of Bennett's CCEs, said there's a balance to all the money pouring into Florida politics. "[Politicians] are trying to get it from everybody, " he said. All the money doesn't corrupt the process though, he said, because opposing interests cancel each others checks out.
"You could call it corruption if only one person was able to do it. Everybody can do it, " Ramba chuckled. "So I guess if the whole process is corrupt...."
A look at the best and worst:
(no one aced the study)
North Dakota: F
South Carolina: F
South Dakota: F