While Tuesday’s Republican primary outcome is probably still in doubt, one thing is clear: Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum will be outspent by his self-funded opponent, former health care executive Rick Scott. Scott and his 527 groups have spent almost $40 million on his campaign, while the McCollum campaign has spent about $10 million.
Lacking Scott’s self-funding, McCollum has relied on a 527 group associated with him, Florida First Initiative, mostly to run television ads against Scott. The group had raised over $3.8 million, as of Thursday. (Statewide airtime runs at approximately $1 million a week.) While Scott has his own 527, Let’s Get to Work, it’s funding largely consists of $11 million from one donor — trust in the name of Rick Scott’s wife.
The Florida First Initiative has taken contributions from groups and industries with interests in state government. In addition, the group has taken contributions from other committees. Two committees, the Florida Liberty Fund and the Freedom First Committee, associated with state Rep. Dean Cannon and state Sen. Mike Haridopolos, respectively, donate to the Florida First Initiative.
A common pattern has emerged: A company will donate to one of those committees and then the committee will transfer a similar amount of money to the Florida First Initiative within a few days. The Freedom First Committee has donated $768,000 to the Florida First Initiative, while the Florida Liberty Fund has donated $975,000.
In addition to those committees, the Florida First Initiative received $600,000 from the League of American Voters, a little-known D.C.-based group associated with former Clinton White House advisor-turned-conservative Dick Morris. The group shares an office with Grover Norquist’s group, Americans for Tax Reform. League of American Voters has run an ad attacking Rick Scott’s tenure as CEO of Columbia/HCA. (League of American Voters did not respond to requests for comment.)
The Chamber of Commerce donated $500,000 to the Florida First Initiative the day it endorsed McCollum. The Chamber Institute for Legal Reform donated $500,000 to the Florida Liberty Fund and the Freedom First Committee, $224,000 of which was donated to Florida First Initiative two days later.
The donations are not just from committees and corporations with established interests in the state of Florida. Contractors, developers, wealthy professionals, beverage distributors, home builders, auto dealers and other politicians running for office also have donated to the Florida First Initiative, albeit in smaller amounts. However, even these amounts are smaller than the $500 limit donors are subject to under Florida law — 527 groups are exempt from this state law.
Other interests that have donated to Florida First Initiative:
United States Sugar donated $150,000 to the Florida Liberty Fund and the Freedom First Committee each on Aug. 6, and within days, each committee gave $100,000 to the Florida First Initiative. The vice president and lobbyist for U.S. Sugar, Bob Coker, told the Miami Herald that he had donated to the League of American Voters, but didn’t disclose the sum, since that group is organized as a 501 (c)(4) social welfare organization.
“We don’t sit down and say, ‘We’ve given you $49, therefore, we expect blah blah blah.’ That’s not our game. We expect someone who’s going to be fair and who will allow us to espouse our views,” Coker told the Herald. McCollum has not said whether he supports buying sugar lands for Everglades restoration, which Scott opposes and calls a “secret sugar tax.” Gov. Charlie Crist recently touted a purchase of 26,800 acres of land by the South Florida Water Management District for $197 million, a fraction of the $1.75 billion that Crist proposed two-and-a-half years ago.
The largest health care contributor is not a health insurance company. It is a provider of systems for handling worker compensation and personal injury claims, Miramar-based Automated Healthcare, LLC. Automated Healthcare did not donate directly to the Florida First Initiative, but instead to the Florida Liberty Fund and the Freedom First Committee, which transferred the funds.
On June 16, three LLCs — Durable Medical, Orthopaedic Fellowship Group, and Green Solar Transportation — with the same managers as the founders and co-CEOs of Automated Healthcare, Paul Zimmerman, M.D., and Gerald Glass, M.D., donated $500,000 to the Florida Liberty Fund. On June 22, $487,000 was transferred to the Florida First Initiative. Automated Healthcare LLC also donated $100,000 to the Florida Liberty Fund on Aug. 3; on Aug. 5, $124,000 was transferred to FFI. (Automated Healthcare did not respond to a request for comment.)
H.B. 5603, a bill vetoed by Gov. Crist but supported by Florida CFO and Democratic candidate for governor Alex Sink, included provisions aiming to reduce the cost of prescription drugs in the state’s worker-compensation program. Automated Healthcare opposes the legislation since it would likely cut into their business.
Progress Energy of Raleigh, N.C., donated $100,000 to the Florida First Initiative. In January, the Florida Public Service Commission rejected a $500 million rate hike increase for Progress Energy’s 1.6 million Florida customers. Two of the three board members who opposed the rate hike were later denied interviews for reappointment. Florida Power & Light, which also unsuccessfully sought a rate hike, has also donated $50,000 to the Freedom First Committee. “His proposed rate increase is concerning and will be difficult for utility customers to bear,” McCollum said in 2009. “Given the tough economic climate for power companies, these requests must be carefully weighed considering the costs for consumers.”
The Florida First Initiative primarily runs television ads, in addition to direct mail. The group has its own YouTube channel. Many of the ads reference Rick Scott’s tenure as CEO of for-profit hospital chain Columbia/HCA when he was forced out of the company in 1997 after the U.S. government fined the company $1.7 billion for Medicare and Medicaid fraud. (Scott, for his part, is running on his business experience.)
The ads also allege that he profited from a business that sent remissions from illegal immigrants back to Mexico and that his hospitals illegally turned away emergency room patients. The most recent ad asks Scott to release a deposition for a lawsuit involving the company he founded, Solantic, using false medical license information. (Separate from that lawsuit, The Florida Independent investigated Solantic’s usage of doctors’ medical licenses without their permission and possible Medicare overbilling.)
All of this money is more crucial since McCollum will not be receiving matching funds in accordance with the state spending cap against a self-funder. A federal appeals court struck down the state spending cap law, meaning that McCollum’s campaign did not receive $24.9 million from the state after the Scott camp spent that amount did not receive state funds matching Scott’s expenditures once Scott spent more than $24.9 million. Since the July 30 ruling, contributors have poured $2.3 million into the Florida First Initiative.
For his part, Scott has repeatedly criticized McCollum for being beholden to special interests by taking their money. His campaign Wednesday cut a web video listing some of the donations to the Florida First Initiative to The O’Jays song, “Money, Money, Money.” (The video may well be taken down for a possible copyright violation.) However, Scott simply does not have to take this kind of money. He has a net worth of $218 million, according to his financial disclosure form.
“I think it raised questions that Rick Scott raised in the 11th hour as to whether or not Bill McCollum can be bought,” says University of Florida Professor of Politics Daniel Smith. “It creates the perception that Bill McCollum will have to respond in kind as governor to carry out the bidding of those who are financially backing him with unlimited contributions,” he adds.
Many Republican primary voters remain undecided or could be persuaded to another candidate in Tuesday’s primary. According to a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday, 19 percent of likely Republican primary voters were undecided, while 32 percent who named a candidate said they could be persuaded to change their vote. The poll showed that McCollum has a 44-35 percent lead over Scott.
The McCollum campaign did not respond to a request for comment, but he told the Miami Herald, “If people want to contribute to me, generally speaking, I don’t care who they are unless they have an unsavory background. … They can give to this campaign. They can give to me if they believe in my cause. That doesn’t mean I believe in theirs.”
That statement, of course, could only be tested if he does become governor. But the collection of established interests donating to a 527 associated with his campaign amounts on the order of hundreds of thousands begs the question.
This story has been amended to reflect that the state spending cap provided a dollar-for-dollar match for expenditures over $24.9 million, not for a flat sum of $24.9 million, as originally reported.