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Florida Lawmakers Can't Accept Coffee; Can Accept $100,000 Check

Sen. Mike Bennett says campaign donations do make a difference. “I think a lot of people’s votes are swayed that way. I absolutely do."

Florida ranks as a C-minus for its susceptibility to corruption, according to a new study by the Center for Public Integrity, Public Radio International and WLRN in Miami. WLRN reporter Kenny Malone reports on a loophole in Florida's lobbyist gift ban.

Florida has one of the strictest rules in the country for lobbyist gift-giving: an absolute ban. And the state has one of toughest laws for campaign contributions: a $500 limit.

And yet, there’s a contradiction that everyone in Tallahassee seems to know about. A lobbyist can’t buy a lawmaker dinner – but they CAN write them a $100,000 check.

Actually, the check would go to a “Committee of Continuous Existence.” A CCE is a soft-money account that legislators can use for political polling, consulting and even traveling.

Despite the gift ban, despite the campaign finance limit, a lobbyist, or anyone, can put as much money as they want into a CCE.

A WLRN-Miami Herald analysis shows that last year, lawmakers took more than $5.7 million into their soft-money accounts.

“It just seems like it’s nothing more than the donors paying to play,” said USF Political Science Professor Susan MacManus.

She says the amount of money going into CCEs makes average citizens wonder if their voices even matter.

“It just makes the anger level escalate and people seeing it as government for sale,” she said.

It is illegal to exchange money for votes.

But lobbyists and legislators say that’s not what contributions to CCEs do.

Donations open doors and buy access, according to Jack Cory, a lobbyist whose clients include the National Greyhound Association and the Daily Business Review.

“You support those people that philosophically support your issues or your clients’ issues, but there is never a quid pro,” Cory said.

“I will not visit a candidate and talk about an issue and deliver a check. When you’re delivering checks you’re delivering that as a thank you for the past, not for the future and not for issues to be discussed,” he said.

David Ramba, another major lobbyist in Tallahassee, agrees.

His client, AT&T, dumped more than $50,000 to lawmaker CCE’s last year.

Though Ramba’s confident CCEs don’t corrupt the process, he does admit as soon as legislative session lets out lawmakers start calling his office.

“We know what they want. You know, we finally just ask, ‘when’s the fundraiser?’ There are very numerous aggressive fundraisers that say, ‘Well, sessions over it’s time to raise money. Um, you had a good session, what can you do for me?’”

“I think that everybody is swayed by the huge contributions,” said Mike Bennett, a senate Republican from Bradenton.

“I think a lot of people’s votes are swayed that way. I absolutely do.

“I would like to think that I am the exception. But in order to do that, you’d just about have to be lying to yourself. And I don’t do that very well,” he said.

Bennett has two CCEs that took in more $150,000 in contributions last year.

He says his motto has always been: “I take money from everybody, and I’m beholden to nobody.”

Scott Finn is a former news director at WUSF Public Media, which provides in-depth reporting for Tampa Bay and all of Florida.
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