tampabay.com

Perks to be pricey on Crist's big day

The governor-elect is asking for donations of up to $500,000 for his inauguration.

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published December 6, 2006


TALLAHASSEE - Fresh from his record $19-million campaign for governor, Charlie Crist is again raising big money, this time for his inaugural bash.

And once again, the sky's the limit.

Lobbyists, businesses and Republican donors are being asked to give as much as $500,000 to pay for Crist's celebration on Jan. 2.

That's 100 times greater than the $5,000 limit Jeb Bush set for his first inaugural in 1999, and 50 times greater than the $10,000 ceiling for his second inaugural four years ago.

Crist said he sees no conflict between the populism he espoused as a candidate and the inaugural fundraising drive.

"It is what it is," Crist said. "I'm working hard to make this a non-paying event for a lot of people. And it's just a request."

Crist said large donations will keep the cost of the party affordable for everyone else.

Plans call for $100 tickets to the biggest event, an inaugural ball the night of Jan. 2 at Donald L. Tucker Civic Center in Tallahassee.

More than 2,000 guests are expected.

Other events include a youth fair at Disney World, a cookout in Tampa, a youth baseball camp, parade, tour of the Governor's Mansion and street festival.

Crist's inaugural is co-chaired by St. Petersburg real estate developer Brent Sembler and Tallahassee lobbyist Brian Ballard, whose clients include the Tampa Bay Lightning, New York Yankees, hospitals, cities, counties and multiple vendors that do business with the state.

Working out of offices at state Republican Party headquarters, their stated fundraising target is about $2.5-million.

After costs are met, receipts will be given to the Jessica Marie Lunsford foundation, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and Derrick Brooks Charities.

Two lobbyists who have been solicited to donate to the inaugural said the overall goal was to raise $10-million to $11-million, with the extra money going to the state GOP.

But Crist said the inaugural fundraising and party fundraising are not linked.

"Maybe some of the lobbyists are confused," Crist said.

Crist's hand-picked party chairman, Jim Greer, is expected to take office next month and faces a fundraising challenge headed into a presidential election year in 2008.

"We're trying to raise as much money as we can," Ballard said. "If people want to keep an outpouring of support coming to the party, it will be great."

The committee recently created a political committee known as a 527, called the 2007 Florida Inaugural Committee.

Its president is John Rivera of Miami, president of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, an influential union that backed Crist's campaign.

In 1999, Bush raised $1.6-million for his inauguration. Four years ago, Bush raised more than $2-million, much of it from businesses seeking state contracts or changes in state laws. The Bush committee disclosed all donations three months after the inaugural, and Crist's group promises to do the same.

The Crist fundraising solicitation offers donors a sliding scale of sponsorships, from $10,000 for mere "friends" of Crist to $100,000 for "century" sponsors to $500,000 for "vice chairmen." Donors receive a sliding scale of goodies, from gold cuff links to tote bags.

"It's pretty mind-boggling," said Ben Wilcox of Common Cause, a nonpartisan group that tracks political money. "It must be a pretty impressive tote bag."

Wilcox said he believes inaugural donors are "buying access" to Crist.

"It's unfortunate," Wilcox said. "The inaugural celebrates the people of Florida, but to be a part of this committee you have to be a pretty wealthy person from Florida."

The Florida Commission on Ethics told Crist's group last month that lobbyist donations to the inaugural committee do not violate the year-old lobbyist gift ban to state elected officials because neither Crist nor Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp will be "directly receiving any expenditure" from a lobbyist.

The fundraising pitches include e-mails from Meredith O'Rourke-Cumber, executive director of the inaugural, who was chief fund-raiser for Crist's campaign.

"Once we receive your form, we will e-mail you a tracking number to include on all contributions," O'Rourke wrote on Nov. 30 to donors, lobbyists and others. "Please make sure you include this number on all contributions to ensure that you receive proper credit."

Crist insisted that even a $500,000 donor to the inauguration will receive nothing else in return.

"You might have a nice seat," he said, "but no extra consideration."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or 850224-7263.