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    Political groups take advantage of loophole

    Election law allows committees to back candidates without revealing where their funds come from.

    By LUCY MORGAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published August 25, 2000


    TALLAHASSEE -- State Rep. Janegale Boyd says she's the victim of a last-minute smear campaign launched by a mysterious new committee with ties to the state's trial lawyers.

    A group calling itself Florida Consumer Advocates Inc. is the latest in a series of newly formed committees that plan to take advantage of an election law loophole that allows them to spend millions of dollars to influence elections without adequately reporting the origin of the money.

    Pensacola trial lawyer Jim McKenzie, a member of the board of directors for the Florida Academy of Trial Lawyers, said Thursday he is president of the new group, but refused to disclose its membership or say where its money is coming from.

    "I don't have the authority to disclose our contributors," McKenzie said. "And I won't say how much money we have raised."

    McKenzie did say the group has already developed ads in races throughout the state. He said the ads attempt to educate Floridians on how legislators voted on taxes and special interests. One flier lists the qualifications of both candidates, he added.

    "We're not really supporting or detracting from any one candidate," McKenzie said. "These are issue ads. We aren't asking them to vote for or against anybody. We are focusing on those items of interest to consumers in Florida. This is a consumer organization."

    Boyd disagrees.

    "I believe this is the beginning of a smear campaign," she said. "It's happening 12 days out from the election."

    The slick color brochure received this week by voters in the North Florida senate district where Boyd is seeking election targets her vote for a bill that would have returned the ownership of submerged lands to adjacent property owners.

    "If Janegale Boyd and her developer friends had their way, Florida's favorite waterways would be off limits to you," says a headline that appears over a picturesque river where a sign says "Private Property by edict of the Legislature."

    The brochure goes on to accuse Boyd of trying to give away land and the rights of citizens "to her corporate cronies so private developers could build on it, mining companies could destroy it and wealthy ranchers could exploit it."

    Boyd's picture is beside another photo that shows a closeup of a handcuffed man beneath a headline that says "and you could be hauled off to jail just for coming ashore."

    The brochure does not mention the names of her opponents, who include former Leon County Sheriff Eddie Boone and Rep. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee. The district has few Republican voters and has traditionally elected Democrats, making it highly likely that the winner of the party primary will win in November. Sen. Pat Thomas, a Quincy Democrat, held the seat from 1974 until his death last month.

    Boyd said she voted for the controversial property rights bill during this year's legislative session because small farmers in her district have been unable to use land the state declares as wetlands.

    In one situation a farmer who ran cattle on a 700-acre tract was left with 12 usable acres after state officials declared the remainder of his land as wetlands, she said.

    Boyd said the landowner cannot even get a mortgage on the land anymore.

    Boyd represents a House district that includes parts of Leon, Taylor, Jefferson, Levy, Marion, Wakulla, Gilchrist, Alachua, Dixie and Franklin counties. The senate seat she is seeking includes Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Jackson, Jefferson, Leon, Liberty, Madison and Wakulla counties.

    McKenzie's consumer group filed incorporation papers July 28, using the same resident agent and address used by the Coalition for Family Safety, another committee with strong ties to the state's trial lawyers. Tallahassee lawyer Ronald G. Meyer, the registered agent, said he handled the paperwork but referred all questions to McKenzie.

    McKenzie said the new committee will file a public report with the IRS on Oct. 15 to comply with a new federal law. But that will be long after the Democratic primary is decided.

    The committee is one of several new ones with innocuous-sounding names that obscure an interest group. All were created after legislators failed to pass a bill that would have forced such committees to file detailed campaign reports.

    Late last year a federal judge said state election officials cannot enforce an old law that required political action committees to report contributions and expenditures.

    When legislators failed to pass a new law, that left the door open for new committees to spend money without disclosing.

    The state's doctors have created People for a Better Florida, and the state's business lobby has created the Alliance for Florida's Economy.

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    Lucy Morgan


    From the Times state desk