Charities offer another avenue
As lawmakers' foundations grow, lobbyists can be free to grease the wheels and not worry about disclosure of their tax-deductible donations.
By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published July 4, 2005
TALLAHASSEE - As he weighed a possible U.S. Senate race, Florida House Speaker Allan Bense found time last week to host a high-priced golf tournament in his hometown of Panama City.
Lobbyists, local business people and Bense's friends paid up to $10,000 each to rub elbows with the powerful Republican legislator at a two-day outing at a beachfront golf course. The event raised $250,000.
The round of golf, cocktail reception, dinner and awards were the first fundraising events for the Bense Family Foundation, a nonprofit group formed last year by Bense and his wife, Tonie, to help local charities.
Bense's venture represents a new twist in the complex relationship between Florida lawmakers and lobbyists.
Nearly a dozen lawmakers, including Senate President Tom Lee, R-Brandon, formed foundations in recent years that seek donations from lobbyists and businesses regulated by the state. The money is then distributed in the lawmakers' names to needy causes in their districts.
"Tonie and I need your assistance to endow funding for local charities," Bense wrote in a letter circulated to lobbyists. "If you believe, as my family does, in less government intrusion, with friends and neighbors helping each other, I hope that you will consider a sponsorship for this event."
With Bense controlling the legislative agenda for another year, dozens of lobbyists took advantage. Some sent $10,000 checks as the letter requested. That earned them "leaderboard recognition" status at Holiday Golf Club.
Bense said he did not personally solicit any money from lobbyists. He said organizer Rick Stuart did that.
"I want to help my local YMCA and Boys' Club and Girls' Club and so on, in my part of the world," Bense said in an interview. "I've always wanted to do it, and I'd love to be able to leave a little bit of a legacy when I'm done with this process."
The list of sponsors provided by Bense's foundation at the request of the St. Petersburg Times included lobbyists or employees of AT&T, Anheuser-Busch, Florida Outdoor Advertising Association (billboards), TECO Energy, Florida Manufactured Housing Association (mobile homes), Florida Farm Bureau, JM Family Enterprises (Toyota distributor, car dealer) and WellCare, a Tampa managed care company.
"It was a comfortable blend of people with an interest in the legislative process and people without any apparent interest in the legislative process," said Mitchell Rubin, a lobbyist for Florida beer wholesalers, who attended.
Other lobbyists who participated were David Ericks, Will McKinley, George Meros, Gerald Wester, Ken Plante, Brecht Heuchan, Slayter Bayliss and David Ramba. Other lobbyists sent checks, but didn't attend.
"I'm assuming they were there for the right reasons," Bense said. "If they're expecting more than that, then they don't know me real well."
The five-figure donations from lobbyists pose a new hurdle to disclosure at a time when Lee is demanding more "transparency" in the cozy financial relationships between the people who write the laws and the people affected by them. Donations to legislative charities are tax-deductible and do not have to be disclosed.
Some observers are troubled by the trend.
"It creates too much of a relationship between lawmakers and the people they regulate," said Mark Herron, a specialist in election and ethics laws who mostly represents Democrats.
Herron said it's natural for lobbyists to support a powerful legislator's charity. He predicted that when lawmakers leave office, the foundations "will wither and die on the vine."
Ben Wilcox of Common Cause Florida said the foundations are another way for lobbyists to buy access and influence.
"I guess it's a good thing that they're using the money to do good things," Wilcox said. "It's too bad they have to use their political influence to leverage those contributions."
The Senator Tom Lee Foundation raised $157,000 from September 2002 to June 2003, according to its tax filing. Some money was raised at a May 2003 golf outing sponsored by more than two dozen leading lobbyists or firms that employ lobbyists.
Since the foundation began, Lee said, it has raised $470,000, with about $285,000 from people or groups with ties to Tallahassee.
Lee's foundation has donated $20,000 to a Rotary Club park for handicapped children and $500 to the Brandon Junior Women's Club. During the same period, the tax return shows, the foundation had expenses of $21,000. The most recent tax return was not available.
"The important distinction should be, what are people doing with this money, not where they are raising it from," Lee said. He acknowledged that being Senate president makes it easier for him to raise money, but that he has avoided seeking credit.
"The public lends you these titles and that gives you the ability to accomplish things," Lee said.
Lee said his foundation was an outgrowth of his decision in 2000 to give unspent campaign funds to charities as the law allows. He said he has never sought to take any credit for the foundation's good deeds, and he acknowledged that foundations raise a "delicate" question about the ties between lawmakers and lobbyists.
"Can you accept their generosity for your philanthropic endeavors without compromising your own principles and integrity when you are making decisions in connection with public service?" Lee asked. "We all have perceptions of those who can and those who can't."
Lawmakers already depend on lobbyists for re-election funds and for separate fundraising committees that can take donations of unlimited amounts. Lobbyists also provide much of the money for both political parties' legislative election committees.
Legislative foundations are not entirely new. Caucuses of black lawmakers, Hispanics and women have nonprofit foundations. But a growing number of individual lawmakers have them, too.
Rep. Gus Barreiro, R-Miami Beach, and his brother, Miami-Dade Commissioner Bruno Barreiro, formed a foundation that has donated Christmas gifts to needy children for seven years. With financial backing from lobbyists and others, the brothers host a party for kids in a park in Little Havana every December.
"We did it because we wanted to do it," Gus Barreiro said. "As an elected official, I'm sure there's an underlying benefit to it. I would be naive to think there isn't. But that was never the motive."
The Barreiro Foundation raised $62,000 in 2004. The brothers provided a financial statement for 2004, but it did not include contributors, some of whom donated as much as $5,000. Both Barreiros said they have solicited support from lobbyists.
On their 2003 tax return, the Barreiros reported raising $26,085. About $18,000 of that went for toys, food, program expenses, permits and insurance. Most of the remaining $8,000 went for supplies, equipment rental, accounting fees, postage and shipping.
Using the Barreiros as a model, Rep. Julio Robaina, R-South Miami, created the State Representative Julio Robaina Foundation.
Robaina's group holds a pre-Christmas event, at which he gives away toys and food to the poor. He said the school system gives him a list of the poorest children in his district, based on a list of those receiving free or reduced-price lunches. He said more than 1,500 people showed up last year for the Julio Robaina Christmas event.
"We ask for donations all over," Robaina said. "Yes, there are definitely lobbyists that give." He referred questions about donors to his accountants, who could not be reached for comment.
Robaina estimated his foundation raised less than $18,000 last year. A foundation does not have to file a tax return if it collects less than $25,000 a year.
--Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
[Last modified July 4, 2005, 04:56:14]
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