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Some political funds remain under question

Several state lawmakers haven't complied fully with new rules affecting accounts that can accept unlimited funds.

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published December 16, 2005


TALLAHASSEE - A year after Florida legislators were ordered to bring political fundraising out of the shadows, some are still skirting the rules.

Demand for more disclosure followed revelations that lawmakers took secret contributions of up to $50,000 from hospitals, utilities, tobaccomakers, trial lawyers and others with a stake in legislation.

The money flowed into accounts that can legally accept unlimited amounts of money, allowing lawmakers to evade a $500 limit on contributions to their election funds.

Starting in November 2004, a lawmaker who solicited or accepted money through a fund had to file with the Legislature. Every dollar raised and spent had to be listed on a Web site within 10 days.

Not everyone has complied.

Sen. Lee Constantine on Thursday returned $18,000 in contributions that were not disclosed as quickly as rules now require. He said he took "immediate steps" to comply after discovering the problem. He also apologized to the Senate president for a "regrettable oversight" in hopes of sparing himself further political damage.

"There was no intent to do anything," said Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, who chairs the Senate committee overseeing utilities.

Senate President Tom Lee, R-Valrico, can remove a senator from all committees if he decides a violation of the rule occurred. Lee's spokeswoman said he will review the matter.

Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, a member of the utility committee, accepted $5,000 in August from the Progress Energy Employees PAC in St. Petersburg for a political committee, a Progress spokesman said. The fund, which has raised $268,000, has not registered with the Senate.

The committee's name: Floridians for Accountable Government.

Dozens of lawmakers have similar committees that solicit contributions from lobbyists to pay for travel, meals, cell phones, polling and other expenses.

Most legislators comply with the new rules, but two House members also appeared to be in violation: Rep. Faye Culp, R-Tampa, and Rep. Stan Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, acknowledged they did not comply.

Culp's Citizens United for Leadership Principles received $100 from one contributor since the rule took effect and $2,530 in all. Culp's fund is dormant and loses $10 a month because of bank fees, she said.

"I didn't realize I had to have a Web site," Culp said.

Mayfield said he would comply, though his fund has been largely inactive since the rule took effect. The Committee for Responsible Leadership got $5,000 from a tobacco company in January 2005, and the fund paid cell phone bills this year.

"I suppose I need to get that loose end cleaned up," Mayfield said.

Diaz de la Portilla did not return calls seeking comment about his case.

In the past, he has acknowledged a connection to Floridians for Accountable Government. Of the $268,000 collected by the fund, $50,000 came from AT&T, which lobbied lawmakers for higher telephone rates that took effect last month.

Progress Energy spokesman C.J. Drake said that after the utility promised $10,000 in 2004 but contributed $5,000, "the senator reminded us of the balance of our pledge."

But Drake later said it was the other way around with the second $5,000.

"The senator did not approach us. We approached him," Drake said.

In the past year, Senate leaders sent three memos reminding senators of the new rules, but Constantine kept collecting checks into his fund, all unsolicited, he said. He began taking steps to comply on Dec. 5, the day a special session began.

He has sent back about $18,000 in recent contributions to his committee, including $5,000 from the Florida Municipal Electric Association, $5,000 from Hospital Corporation of America PACs and $2,000 from Sprint.

Other senators complied months ago. For example, Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, is linked to Floridians for Principled Government (www.flpg.net) which raised $31,500 in 2005 from PACs, parimutuels and others.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.

[Last modified December 16, 2005, 00:53:08]


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