State Integrity Investigation
8:00 am
Wed October 3, 2012

State Integrity Investigation Day 5: Soft Money And Deep Pockets

Florida has one of the strictest rules in the country for lobbyist gift-giving: an absolute ban.

And the state has one of toughest laws for campaign contributions: a $500 limit.

And yet, there’s a contradiction that everyone in Tallahassee seems to know about.

A lobbyist cannot buy a legislator dinner, or a cup of coffee, or a bottle of water. But a lobbyist can hand over a check for hundreds of thousands of dollars in a “CCE.”

A Committee of Continuous Existence – a CCE – is a soft-money account that legislators can use for political polling, consulting and even traveling.

Despite the gift ban and campaign finance limit, a lobbyist -- or anyone -- can put as much money as they want into a CCE.

A WLRN-Miami Herald analysis shows that last year, lawmaker’s took more than $5.7 million into their soft-money accounts.

“It just seems like it’s nothing more than the donors paying to play,” said Susan MacManus, a state politics professor at the University of South Florida.

She says the amount of money going into CCEs makes average citizens wonder if their voices even matter.

“It just makes the anger level escalate and people seeing it as government for sale,” she said.

It is illegal to exchange money for votes.

But lobbyists and legislators say that’s not what contributions to CCEs do.

They say the donations open doors and buy access.

Jack Cory is a lobbyist whose clients include the National Greyhound Association and the Daily Business Review.

“You support those people that philosophically support your issues or your clients’ issues, but there is never a quid pro,” Cory said.

“I will not visit a candidate and talk about an issue and deliver a check. When you’re delivering checks you’re delivering that as a thank you for the past, not for the future and not for issues to be discussed.”

David Ramba, another major lobbyist in Tallahassee, agrees.

His client, AT&T, dumped more than $50,000 to lawmaker CCE’s last year.

Though he’s confident CCEs don’t corrupt the process, he does admit as soon as legislative session lets out lawmakers start calling his office.

“We know what they want. You know, we finally just ask, ‘when’s the fundraiser?’” he said.

“There are very numerous aggressive fundraisers that say, ‘well, sessions over it’s time to raise money. Um, you had a good session, what can you do for me?’”

State Rep Mike Bennett (R – Bradenton) says he thinks “everybody is swayed by the huge contributions.”

“I think a lot of people’s votes are swayed that way. I absolutely do,” he said. “I would like to think that I am, 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.”

Bennett has two CCEs that took in more $150,000 in contributions last year.

He says his motto has always been: “I take money from everybody, and I’m beholden to nobody.”

Editor’s note: The State Integrity Investigation is the first attempt to look across all states at how good the system is for preventing political corruption.

The investigation graded each state on more than 300 indicators of accountability, transparency, and corruption risk. The indicators are divided into 14 categories, which appear on the report card.