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Senator wants elections rules panel abolished

Upset by a $311,000 fine for campaign finance violations, the lawmaker says it must be scrapped.

© St. Petersburg Times,
published November 30, 2001

TALLAHASSEE -- Three weeks ago, Miami Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla was hit with one of the largest fines in Florida history for violating campaign finance laws. Now, he has filed a bill to abolish the commission that fined him.

Diaz de la Portilla, a Republican from a prominent South Florida family, wants to do away with the 28-year-old Florida Elections Commission, which he says is fraught with "political shenanigans."

"What the Florida Elections Commission did to me was wrong, and I don't want other officials to go through the same thing," he said Thursday.

Under his bill, the Attorney General's Office and the state Division of Administrative Hearings would take over the Election Commission's responsibilities.

Elections Commission chairwoman Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political science professor, said Thursday she couldn't comment specifically on Diaz de la Portilla's bill.

"A lot of people are disappointed with our rulings," she said, "but many in the public are very pleased that we're taking a close look at violations of elections law."

On Nov. 6, the Elections Commission ruled that Diaz de la Portilla violated 311 campaign finance laws during his 1999 run for the state Senate. The senator also faces 295 criminal charges in the case.

In a 4-3 vote, the commission fined Diaz de la Portilla $311,000. The commission said Diaz de la Portilla accepted $10,000 in cash, when the law forbids candidates from taking $100 or more in cash. The commission ruled that he also failed to report more than $144,000 in contributions and $68,000 in expenditures.

Diaz de la Portilla said the violations were unintentional and accused the commission of "political assassination."

He said six of the commission's nine members have jobs as lobbyists, which is a conflict of interest.

"How in the world could anyone justify lobbyists sitting on a board that is judging lawmakers?" Diaz de la Portilla said. "Their pocketbook depends on how we vote on their issues."

He claims that Anne Jolley Thomas-Bird, the elections commissioner who made the motion to fine him, has an ax to grind. Diaz de la Portilla said he opposed legislation that Thomas-Bird wanted last year when she lobbied for the Florida Marlins.

Diaz de la Portilla has filed an ethics complaint against Thomas-Bird, and another against elections commissioner Courtney Cunningham, who he said is biased against his family over a political issue in Miami-Dade County.

Diaz de la Portilla has had a brush with state elections law before. In 1995, he paid a small fine for violations during a 1992 race for the state House -- but only after a judge issued a warrant for his arrest when he initially failed to pay $3,872.

For his bill to make progress in the Legislature, Diaz de la Portilla needs a sponsor in the House. He said he plans to line one up today.

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