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Lawmaker to reveal donors

Published October 4, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - Facing criticism at home, Florida House Rep. Donna Clarke of Sarasota reversed her stance Friday and said she will name the seven secret donors to a political fund she controls.

"Because all the interest has arisen, I'm in the process of speaking to all my donors," Clarke told Florida Public Radio, "to make sure that they know that I will, in fact, be disclosing my donors, as soon as I can get in touch with all seven of them."

Clarke had refused to name the donors even after Gov. Jeb Bush, titular head of the Florida Republican Party, this week criticized the growing practice by lawmakers of hiding donations as "gold" or "silver" membership dues to political committees they control.

The provision was created in 1973 to help trade groups and unions that collect dues from thousands of members. Since term limits took hold, lawmakers have adopted the model as a way to collect donations to spend on campaigns contributions or travel as they maneuver to become House speaker or Senate president.

Bush said he would work with Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, the incoming Senate president, to change state law to require full disclosure.

Clarke is chairman of a fund called the Committee to Build Florida Leadership, which has received $12,700 - less than most other committees of that type.

Clarke is not required to reveal the donors' names or occupations to the IRS, because she has raised less than $25,000 this year.

Most of the money in Clarke's fund came in four donations of $2,500 each. Checks that large are banned under the $500 limit that applies to candidates' individual campaigns. The Clarke fund got most of its money shortly after the regular session of the 2003 Legislature this spring.

Clarke, who sits on committees regulating banks, hospitals, insurers and telephone companies, refused Wednesday to disclose the donors. She said officeholders are entitled to "a certain level of privacy." She complained about people who want to know "every dollar I have, and where it came from, just because I'm an elected official."

Those remarks prompted a pair of critical letters from readers in Friday's edition of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Clarke's hometown newspaper.

"I have made a note not to vote for her, as it sounds as if she may have something to hide," wrote Margie Meyer, who said she recently moved to Sarasota from another state.

Clarke could not be reached for comment. A Public Radio reporter following up on Clarke's original statement interviewed the second-term lawmaker.

Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, has raised $613,000, more than any other legislator with a fund. Nearly half of Pruitt's money cannot be traced, and his committee has not filed donor information with the IRS.

The committees have proliferated in the era of term limits, which restrict lawmakers to eight years in office. House members who want to become speaker must begin the marathon effort of securing commitments from their peers, one-by-one, almost from the time they take office.

Another House member, Rep. Stan Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, who said Wednesday he would not release his donors' names, said Friday he would make them public if the donors did not object.

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