Chiles: GOP political groups sidestep campaign finance laws

08/26/10 Kate Bradshaw
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Many of the political ads you’re seeing this election year are not paid for by individual campaigns. Instead, entities called political action committees, or PACs, often foot the bill. Some see this as a shameless way to sidestep campaign finance law, since unlike official campaigns, there’s no limit to how much individuals can donate to a PAC. Independent candidate for governor Bud Chiles was in Tampa today accusing a local accounting firm of legally laundering money for GOP causes.

Near the corner of Swann and South Boulevard, Chiles held a spreadsheet listing the names of dozens of organizations. They had names like Florida First, Alliance for a Strong Economy, and Save Our Constitution. Other details included address, chair, treasurer, and total contributions. The majority of them had the same address, which was the building in front of which Bud Chiles stood. All but one listed the same person, Nancy Watkins, as their treasurer.

Chiles says the PACs, nicknamed 527s because of where they are in IRS code, to sidestep campaign finance laws.

While campaign finance law limits individual campaign contributions to $500, there is no limit to how much one can donate to PACs like the Committee for Freedom or Prosperity Florida. Some of these groups have so far banked millions of dollars from individuals, businesses, and each other. That money can fund ads supporting a cause or candidate, as long as the ads don’t directly tell an individual how to vote. Chiles said viewers and listeners have the right to know where these organizations are getting the bulk of their money.

Nancy Watkins, is listed Treasurer, Registered Agent, or both for the thirty-six PACs her South Tampa firm manages.

Watkins disagrees that major contributors like utilities should make themselves known in ads. She says the PACS disclose where their money comes from, and where it goes, which should be enough.

Watkins said it’s the job of the press to tell the public who is funding which PAC, and where that money is going.

Republican Attorney General Bill McCollum ran an unsuccessful gubernatorial primary campaign against self-funded Rick Scott, but the ads backing McCollum were funded largely by conservative PACs. The Miami Herald reported that the Florida First Initiative and the Sunshine State Freedom Fund paid for a combined $4.1 million in ads pushing McCollum. Contributors to those groups include Progress Energy, the sugar industry, and developers. Chiles said as governor he hopes to make disclosure of who funds the ads more prominent.

He added that he’d rather see the limit on individual contributions lifted.

Accountant Nancy Watkins agrees with Chiles that individual campaign contribution limits need to change, but denies any sleight of hand on the part of her firm.

She said she’s sure there are similar operations out there that do flout disclosure laws, but hers isn’t one of them. Chiles said he would never accept money from a PAC set up for his political benefit, and limits individual contributions to his campaign to $250.

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Hillsborough County Soil and Water, Seat 5

GREAT PIECE! Thanks for this, Sean. I will circulate. We need an Election overhaul on all levels. This is a rigged game! Representatives are supposed to be representing, we the people are the leaders! Time for people to get up off the couch! I got over 82,000 votes and spent less than $300 for my campaign. I am sure I broke records. Others can do this too!