Multiple checks, same return address

The law: Candidates can't accept more than $500 from a single source. The reality: Donors use family members, companies and a loophole.

Published August 18, 2006

As a candidate in the District 44 state legislative primary, Rob Schenck is barred from accepting more than $500 from a single source.

But that hasn't stopped lobbyists, builders, county contractors, and special interests from stuffing his campaign coffers with multiple $500 donations. And it's perfectly legal.

How? By channeling money through networks of corporations, through the spouses and multiple firms of powerful lobbyists, or through several divisions of the same company.

Schenck is not alone in accepting contributions packaged this way, although he's been the most prolific Hernando County candidate this year.

Candidates on both sides of the aisle, from Pinellas to Citrus counties, from circuit court races to the gubernatorial contest, frequently take advantage of the loophole.

More than 37 percent of Schenck's $70,130 in campaign donations comes from donors who circumvented the maximum in just this way. Some are married couples each giving $500. Others funnel contributions through a network of businesses. Some are partners in banks and engineering firms that also donate campaign cash.

For example, four divisions of the same Hollywood health care and insurance company gave him $500 each, for a total of $2,000.

Schenck received $1,500 from a Miami medical care consortium and its two partners. He received another $2,000 from David Craighead, who is associated with several local developments, and three firms tied to him. He received $1,500 from Ralph Glover, a local developer, and companies under his control. He received $1,500 from Bryan Marshall, a local dentist, and two firms tied to him. He received another $1,000 from a Palm Beach sugar company.

Schenck said his positions are well-known, and contributions don't influence his vote.

"I just tell them how I feel about the issues. Quite frankly, you're accountable to the voters, not the people that make donations."

The small amounts Schenck has racked up don't come near the $5,000, $10,000 and $20,000 packaged donations received by candidates throughout the region, Republicans and Democrats alike.

Ana Trinque, chairwoman of the county Republican Executive Committee, pointed out that labor unions frequently use the loophole to funnel tens of thousands of dollars to Democratic candidates.

"Bottom line is I don't have a problem where they get the money if they follow the rules and guidelines."

For once, she agrees with Jay Rowden, chairman of the county Democratic Executive Committee. Rowden said he and his wife, Commission Chairwoman Diane Rowden, will each give $500 to a candidate they support. But he still worries that deep-pocket donors get an advantage not afforded the occasional $20 or $50 contributor.

"These people are buying something," he said, "They are either buying a vote or buying access. If they buy something that's not available to the average citizen, then I think it's wrong."

Glenn Claytor, the only Democrat in the District 44 race, said he wouldn't rule out accepting packaged contributions, pointing out he has taken money from labor unions. However, given his views on controlling growth and curbing special-interest influence in Tallahassee, it's unlikely that he'll be sought out by many of the wealthy donors, he said.

State Rep. Dave Russell, who is running for Schenck's old County Commission seat, said he's been on both sides of the issue. He's benefited from contributions from developers, lobbyists, health care companies and insurance interests.

This year, for example, Russell accepted two $500 donations from Florida Water Products. One donation came from the company's Tampa headquarters, the other from the company's Brooksville branch.

In his 2002 reelection campaign, phone companies funneled thousands to his opponent in an effort to unseat him.

"There's nothing unethical about it," Russell said. "It's quite a common practice, and I don't think anything should be read into it."

Campaign finance advocates decry the practice as an end-run around the spirit of the law.

"It's a way of getting around the limit what an individual can give," said Ben Wilcox, executive director of Common Cause Florida.

However, the courts have consistently ruled that campaign donations are a form of free speech, and that corporations and special-interests have a right to contribute, explained Susan McManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida.

She said: "The down side of that is it does make the whole system look like it's up for sale to the highest bidder."

Hernando County Commissioner Nancy Robinson said public perception is a problem, but the practice is still within the law. "The law allows it and obviously it's a First Amendment issue," she said. Robinson has accepted a handful of similar donations in her current and past campaigns.

She predicted, "As long as the law allows it, people will use the law to their advantage."

Asjylyn Loder can be reached at aloder@sptimes.com or 352 754-6127

Are there any limits?

"A candidate may not accept a contribution in excess of $500 from any one person per election. A 'person' is an individual or a corporation, association, firm, partnership, joint venture, joint stock company, club, organization, estate, trust, business trust, syndicate or other combination of individuals having collective capacity. The term includes a political party, political committee or committee of continuous existence. Loans are considered contributions; however, loans made by a candidate to his own campaign are not subject to contribution limitations. In-kind contributions are subject to the same contribution limitations as money. An in-kind contribution is anything of value except money made for the purpose of influencing the results of an election."

Source: Florida Supervisor of Elections Web site.