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FSU frat brothers are giving Crist a fundraising boost

The Pikes are among the gubernatorial candidate's formidable cross section of financial backers.

Published July 23, 2006

TALLAHASSEE - The Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity brothers from Florida State -- "Pikes," as they are known - do more than hold reunions and cheer for Seminole football.

They also raise money for a frat brother, Attorney General Charlie Crist, who's on his way to shattering all fundraising records in his quest to become Florida's next governor.

Crist raised $10.6-million through June in the first stage of the race, the Sept. 5 Republican primary against Tom Gallagher, who has raised $7.8-million. Crist collected a chunk of it at a reception attended by at least 10 frat members, including Tom Wheeler, an FSU classmate who has a high-level job in the attorney general's office.

"You kind of feel obligated, but in a good way," said Jay Hurley, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer and Pike who sent Crist $500. "He's a member of the fraternity. There's a lot of camaraderie there."

Crist's fraternity fundraising is helped by the fact that another FSU Pike is Brent Sembler, a wealthy St. Petersburg developer who is finance chairman of Crist's campaign. Even with a $500 limit on individual contributions, Sembler corporations have funneled at least $33,000 to Crist's campaign.

Sembler and the Pikes are but two examples of how Crist has built a formidable fundraising network, not just in Florida but across the country.

"It's family and friends, by and large. It's not rocket science," Crist says. "It's a matter of people you meet along the way."

Gallagher and his supporters have repeatedly criticized Crist for raking in large sums from gambling interests and trial lawyers, sources Gallagher uses to question Crist's conservative values.

Gallagher's campaign cites dog and horse tracks and jai alai frontons that support Crist, as well as prominent Florida trial lawyers such as John Morgan, Fred Levin, Steve Yerrid and Gary Pajcic, who are reliable donors to liberal Democratic candidates as well.

Crist says a political contribution doesn't mean he supports the donor's political agenda. "It means they support mine," he says.

What do they get for their money? "A thank you note and good government, if I win," Crist says.

Asked why Crist has raised so much more money, Gallagher said, "Because he has trial lawyers and gambling interests."

But Crist's universe of financial backers is more diverse and complex than that.

For more than a year, he has hop-scotched from one fundraiser to the next, sometimes attending three in one day.

In some cases, donors have bundled dozens of checks from separate paper corporations from a single address, multiplying the $500 contribution limit into an amount many times that much.

Some examples:

- At least 30 companies owned by Ken Underwood of Ponte Vedra Beach gave the maximum $500 to Crist, for a total of $15,000, and half of the checks were written within days of the firms' creation. Underwood, who holds a state contract to publish driver safety handbooks, says of Crist: "We've been friends for several years."

- Crist has received at least $6,500 from Miami companies owned by Sergio Pino, a prominent builder and developer and supporter of Republican candidates. The Miami Daily Business Review has reported that Pino is subject of a federal public corruption investigation along with Miami-Dade County Commissioner Jose "Pepe" Diaz.

- Crist is popular with owners of apartment complexes in the Detroit suburb of Southfield, Mich. Twenty of them gave Crist $500 each, for a total of $10,000. The apartments are owned by the firm that owns Hollywood Greyhound Track, one of four Florida parimutuels that will soon offer Las Vegas-style slot machines. Crist upset gambling opponents last year by declining to handle a court case challenging the slots' legality.

- Two fellow state attorneys general, Greg Abbott in Texas and Jon Bruning in Nebraska, have hosted Crist fundraisers. One of Crist's Texas donors is Kent Hance, best known for defeating a young George W. Bush in a race for a West Texas congressional seat in 1978. 

- Florida nursing home operators, angry at Gov. Jeb Bush for vetoing a rate increase in the state budget, set out to raise $50,000 for Crist last month "to ensure that this veto does not happen again."

- The Art Rooney family of Pittsburgh, which owns the National Football League Steelers, rounded up thousands of dollars for Crist. So have entrepreneur Donald Trump; David Marsh, a Birmingham, Ala., lawyer who went to law school with Crist; and legions of lobbyists in Tallahassee.

One obvious connection to the nursing home contributions and the Rooney money is Brian Ballard, a Tallahassee lobbyist who represents both clients in Florida.

Ballard, who prides himself on his own political network, remembers walking into a room of Crist fundraisers at the Marriott at Tampa's airport last year and not recognizing most of the people.

"I didn't know any of the people, or very few of them," Ballard said, "and it was elbow to elbow."

The group reconvened last month, a day before the June 30 deadline for accepting contributions for the quarter. At the "Founders' Round-Up," each supporter was asked to bring $10,000.

Crist claims to have more than 28,000 contributors so far. He said he had no idea why he received a $500 check from the Sand Hill Recycling Center of Auburn, Ala., or $500 from Dean Webster, a retiree in Kennebunkport, Maine.

"Not a clue," Crist said.

The more individual donors of $250 or less he has from Florida, the greater the amount of state matching funds he's eligible to receive under a Florida law that provides partial public financing of statewide elections.

The state will start issuing those checks next week. But first, Crist will celebrate his 50th birthday on Monday with a party at the Sirata Beach Resort in St. Pete Beach.

The party is also a $500-per-person campaign fundraiser.

Times staff writer Joni James and researchers Angie Drobnic Holan and Deirdre Morrow contributed to this report. Reporter Steve Bousquet is at or (850) 224-7263.

[Last modified July 23, 2006, 01:40:41]

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