Bill McCollum

As Florida attorney general and Republican candidate for governor Bill McCollum looks to capitalize on an endorsement from Mitt Romney in Jacksonville, the St. Petersburg Times reports that McCollum may have broken Florida election law by using his name to raise money for the shadowy 527 group Florida First Initiative.

More from the Times:

“Bill McCollum asked that I forward this information to you,” states one e-mail soliciting money for the Florida First Initiative, which includes the money-wiring number to the group’s account at M&S Bank in Gainesville.

An attached memorandum from McCollum campaign attorneys notes that under federal law “there are no limits to the amount of money that the organization may accept or spend.”

The election-law question is not whether the group will have to file its contributions and expenditures — under the recently passed H.B. 131, it only needs to do so 30 days before a primary election and 60 days before a general election, and file quarterly reports with the IRS, which wouldn’t be due till mid-July. Rather, the legal question stems from the solicitation for the contribution.

“There’s a state law requirement independent of this. If you indirectly or directly solicit a contribution, you have to file a form with the Division of Elections,” says Tallahassee election lawyer Mark Herron. That form is a one-page “statement of solicitation.”

Two 527 groups have run ads, both entitled “Fraud,” to counter another Republican gubernatorial candidate, former health-care executive Rick Scott. The ads criticizes his tenure as CEO of the for-profit hospital chain Columbia/HCA, which the U.S. Government fined $1.7 billion in 1997 for Medicare and Medicaid fraud. The first ad buy was bankrolled by Alliance for America’s Future, a 527 based in Alexandria, Va., and affiliated with Partnership For America’s Future, for over $1 million. (Former Vice-President Dick Cheney’s daughter, Mary Cheney, is listed as a director for Partnership For America’s Future.) AAF’s custodian, Barry Bennett, has not responded to multiple requests from for comment.

The second 527, Tallahassee-based Florida First Initiative, bought $616,282 of airtime and is linked to Alachua County GOP Chairman Stafford Jones. Jones also did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

527s running ads are often a feature of Florida politics, says University of Florida political science professor Daniel Smith.

“This happens quite frequently in Florida, because we have low contribution limits for interest groups to candidates,” Smith says. “It opens up the possibility, if not necessity, to go outside and spend independently on behalf of candidates.”

Smith adds that 527s backed by the sugar industry poured money into State Sen. Rod Smith’s failed campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2006, as well as Charlie Crist’s gubernatorial primary that same year against Florida CFO Tom Gallagher.

Florida First Initiative shares connections to the McCollum campaign. “McCollum’s finance director, Carrie O’Rouke, is involved in soliciting money for the group and the two entities share the same TV ad producer and media buyer,” reports the St. Petersburg Times.

McCollum, who has long been the presumed nominee for governor, is now 13 points behind multimillionaire Scott in the Republican primary. Scott began his campaign on April 13 and has spent millions on TV advertising to get his name out. Scott also released an attack ad of his own, criticizing McCollum for his role as a mortgage industry lobbyist and for his vote as a congressman on the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which allowed mergers between commercial and investment banks.

The McCollum campaign did not return a phone call for comment, but a spokeswoman told the St. Petersburg Times that the organization is “not run by our campaign,” and added, “We are not surprised by any number of organizations and individuals taking issue with Rick Scott’s questionable history.”

Commenting on the scandal involving the arrest of former Republican Party of Florida Chairman Jim Greer for stealing party money through a front group, McCollum told Times/Herald reporter Marc Caputo on April 27, “I think we need to have as much transparency as possible in the party. Always have thought that.”

Now comes the test of whether he will be transparent about these 527 groups.

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