Using ethics loophole, Sen. Lauren Book votes to give her nonprofit $1.5 million

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Sen. Lauren Book’s page on Florida Senate web site.

Broward State Sen. Lauren Book voted “yes” last month to approve a state appropriations bill that included $1.5 million for Lauren’s Kids, the nonprofit she founded and leads as its $135,000-a-year chief executive officer.

A gaping loophole in Florida Senate ethics rules allowed Book to cast her vote despite her apparent conflict of interest. The same loophole also meant she didn’t have to disclose her conflict publicly.

Senators are forbidden by ethics rules from voting “on any matter” in which they or an immediate family member would privately gain – except when it comes to votes on the annual General Appropriations Act. Abstaining senators must also disclose the nature of their interest in the matter, according to the 335-page Florida Senate Rules and Manual.

“Legislators are allowed to vote on issues that may benefit their profession,” said Ben Wilcox, research director for the nonpartisan watchdog Integrity Florida. “But it becomes questionable when it is a direct appropriation to an entity that a legislator controls and that would directly benefit that legislator.”

Lauren’s Kids, whose chairman is prominent lobbyist Ron Book, the senator’s father, has in a just few years become one of the Florida Legislature’s most favored private charities. Since 2012, Lauren’s Kids has bagged more than $10 million in taxpayer-funded handouts.

Gov. Rick Scott went along with the latest $1.5 million appropriation for Lauren’s Kids while approving Florida’s $83 billion 2017-18 budget earlier this month.

How that appropriation came to be is a story itself. Lauren’s Kids only asked for $1 million.

Where did extra $500,000 come from?

But more than six weeks after the Florida legislative session ended, nobody is answering questions about how Lauren’s Kids snagged that additional $500,000. Not Sen. Book. Not Ron Book. Not Sen. Bill Montford, the Tallahassee Democrat who sits on the education appropriations subcommittee and sponsored a funding request for $1 million on the nonprofit’s behalf on Feb. 22. And not Rep. Jeanette Nunez, R-Kendall, who sponsored the bill in the House. Each did not respond to detailed requests for comment.

Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee and Rep. Jeannette Nunez sponsored funding requests for Lauren’s Kids in the state Senate and House

Lauren’s Kids spokeswoman Claire VanSusteren, however, provided a written statement on June 12 summarizing how Lauren’s Kids intends to use the funds and defending the organization’s mission to increase reporting of child sexabuse incidents.

“There is no investment greater than in our children’s safety, and research shows that school-based education is an extremely effective vehicle for prevention and early intervention,” the statement read. “Lauren’s Kids is proud to partner with Florida educators to help arm students with knowledge about personal safety and accessing help.”

VanSusteren did not respond to a follow-up list of questions emailed on June 15 that again requested an explanation of how Lauren’s Kids’ funding request got bumped up from $1 million to $1.5 million between April 27 and May 8. That’s when House and Senate members went into conference committees to hash out the final budget bill. Sen. Book was a conferee for the appropriations conference committee on health care and human services. Montford was a conferee on the committee for education.

Wilcox said Sen. Book should be forthcoming about the additional $500,000 Lauren’s Kids received. “At the very least, she should be as transparent as possible on how that funding was decided,” he said. “It already doesn’t look good to the public given it is a dicey relationship for her in the first place as a sitting legislator who is also a recipient of taxpayer dollars.”

Lauren Book, 32, is a freshman legislator from Plantation. She assumed office just seven months ago after running unopposed and has quickly ascended the state’s political ranks. She is the Democratic Leader Pro Tempore and chairwoman of the Senate environmental preservation and conservation committee. She also sits on the appropriations, health policy and rules committees. Her father’s clients contributed significantly to her campaign and political action committee.

In March, Sen. Book told Florida Bulldog she was advised by Senate counsel “that it is proper that I do not abstain on these matters unless the funding directly inures to my benefit, which it will not.” Sen. Book, who was sexually abused by her nanny in her early teens, said she resigned from the board of directors of the foundation that raises money for Lauren’s Kids and that her salary was restructured to “ensure that no public dollars were used to compensate me for my work.”

At the time, Sen. Book said the Florida Department of Education requested that the Legislature provide $1 million in funding for Lauren’s Kids to continue its “Safer, Smarter” curriculum, a program that teaches students, teachers and parents how to spot signs of child sex abuse and the importance of reporting sex crimes against children.

Lobbyist Ron Book, the senator’s father. Photo from the documentary “Untouchable” by David Feige

The curriculum is made available to children at all grade levels in public and charter schools in all 67 Florida counties, but school districts are not required to teach it. For instance, Indian River County Public Schools and Orange County Public Schools do not use the “Safer, Smarter” curriculum, according to spokespersons for both districts. Miami-Dade Public Schools, the largest school district in the state, uses “Safer, Smarter” at only 80 out of 392 schools, said spokesman John Schuster.

“The curriculum is implemented as classroom guidance lessons facilitated by the school counselor or school social worker,” Schuster said. “The counseling professionals choose the classes where the students will receive the curriculum.”

Data lacking on curriculum results

Schuster said Miami-Dade Public Schools does not track or have any data confirming that the “Safer, Smarter” curriculum has resulted in the reporting of child sex-abuse incidents that would otherwise go undetected. “These reports are made directly to the Department of Children and Families and are anonymous,” he said. “We have no access to this reporting information.”

In VanSusteren’s June 12 statement, she defended Lauren’s Kids work by citing an unverified and questionable  2015 poll the organization commissioned that concluded one in three girls and one in five boys will be victims of sexual abuse by the time they graduate 12th grade. By applying those statistics to the overall public schools student population in Florida, there are “at least 540,000 child victims currently enrolled Florida’s K-12 schools,” the statement read.

VanSusteren insisted 95 percent of child sex abuse is preventable through education and awareness, and that the “Safer, Smarter” curriculum works. “Students who receive education about personal safety and accessing help in unsafe situations are three times more likely to speak up if they are being harmed,” VanSusteren said. “The funds allocated to Lauren’s Kids during fiscal year 2017-2018 will be used to continue our work to bring life-saving resources to Florida classrooms – as recommended in the Department of Education budget, as well as the Governor’s budget.”

However, the Florida Department of Education did not make the funding request for the curriculum, said department press secretary Audrey Walden. She explained the Legislature and the governor must first approve the funding and the department then disperses the funds to Lauren’s Kids and other nonprofit groups that get state money. Organizations must apply to the department and provide a breakdown on how the funds will be spent.

In its March 31 application, Lauren’s Kids stated it would spend $800,000 to print and distribute educational materials and maintain two websites associated with the “Safer, Smarter” curriculum; $100,000 to produce a digital conference; and two separate $50,000 expenditures for an evaluation survey, online training modules for teachers and principals and an educational fair.

“Please note that the department does not require schools to use the curriculum referenced,” Walden said. “It is implemented in schools at the discretion of each school district.”

According to an online legislative database used to track the Lauren’s Kids appropriation, Sen. Montford sponsored a $1 million funding request the same day that Kelly Mallette, governmental affairs director for Ronald L. Book P.A., lobbied the subcommittee on behalf of Lauren’s Kids and three other nonprofits the firm represents.

Montford, who is also the chief executive of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, has sponsored previous funding requests for Lauren’s Kids. He sits on the appropriations, health policy and rules committees alongside Sen. Book.

According to Montford’s 2016 campaign finance reports, Ron Book, his wife Patricia and his law firm each gave $1,000 to the senator’s re-election effort. Ronald L. Book P.A. also contributed $2,500 in 2014 to a now-defunct political action committee chaired by Montford.

On the House side, the re-election campaign of Rep. Nunez, who sponsored a $1 million funding bill on behalf of Lauren’s Kids, also got $1,000 contributions from Ron Book, his wife and his law firm. Montford and Nunez did not respond to four messages left with their legislative assistants the week of the June 5-9 special session.

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10 Comments Post a Comment
  1. David Torgerson says:

    Ron Book is the lobbyist for Petland and supports the sale of puppy mill puppies in Floirda

  2. This is Lauren Book’s only accomplishment to date. Why am I not surprised? She’s a complete and utter idiot who likely is getting her senate voting bids from dear old daddy.

    Lauren Book doesn’t have to “step down” from her group because daddy Ron has always been in charge, not her. Yet, she’s still going to have her march across FloriDUH using that $1.5 MEEEEELLION (insert Dr Evil and Mini Me) she just got, only it will be in September.

    We already have an uneducated moron running the White House, so having this uneducated bimbo as a high ranking Senator doesn’t shock me. The good ole boy (and girl) network is alive and well in Tallahassee.

  3. PS: Lauren is still listed on Lauren’s Kids website as the CEO. She’s obviously lying.

  4. Barry Williams says:

    Once again an out-of-state adult convicted of taking advantage of an 11 year old and takes twisted pride being being on the national sex offender list is offended by Lauren’s work. Have to ask – why, as a sex offender, are you critical of someone who is working to stop people like yourself who take advantage of children? Are you proud of “being with” an 11-year-old? Do you prefer children to be unaware of adult predators like your victim was?

  5. Once again, the fake name “Barry Williams” follows me around the internet like a puppy because he has no life of his own. He’s the typical Trump supporter mad at the man on welfare while the woman on corporate welfare just gave herself ONE POINT MEEELION DOLLARS (Cue Dr Evil & Mini Me). How pathetic is that? Your hero Ron Boo is not just a convicted criminal, but a recidivist criminal at that. Of course, I know that “Barry” is a member of the Lauren’s dubious organization and since his job depends on this payday, he/she will do all he can to try to discredit all detractors. The Books are crooks, deal with it, “Barry.”

  6. Barry Williams says:

    Once again the child sex abuser comes back with sycophant speculation and dull imagination accusations. Please address your crime of sexually abusing an 8 year old child. It’s obvious why you’re threatened by a program that teaches children the right course of action is informing authorities an adult tried to touch them inappropriately.

  7. Eric Knight says:

    It appears that Barry is the only one who has to ‘splain himself. Last I heard, Derek Logue is not an active nor alleged criminal at this point. He has been adjudicated and punished in a court of law for a serious crime, but is now free to live his life just as Barry or myself, among others here.

    The issues he has brought out, though, point to an extremely serious breach of a potential major felony: Use of public office to promote or profit one’s private affairs. I suspect had Lauren Book been a Republican, she would be wearing an orange jumpsuit right about now for suspicion of a crime that many ex-politicians have committed with lesser degrees of fraud. If I were the state legislature ethics committee, I would IMMEDIATELY investigate not just conflict of interest, but overt appropriation of funds that she had plenary voting powers to assist in obtaining such funds.

    It wouldn’t matter if Book’s organization were as selfless as Mother Theresa: The fact that she is profiting from such an organization’s finances is grounds for IMMEDIATE investigation, and frankly, censure on part of the legislative branch, notwithstanding Logue’s past crime from which all judicial punishment has been satisfied, victim restitution has been affirmed, and is no less a valid citizen that Barry Williams himself.

  8. Barry Williams says:

    Derek is a life long registered sex offender who has made it his mission to troll and attack Lauren, a woman who was sexually abused as a child. The story above does not indicate that Lauren Book broke the law as you insinuate. Profiting? Is that a dig at capitalism? So why would a convicted sex offender, who sexually abused a six year old, want to silence someone who was sexually abused as a child and educates children about monsters like Derek? It can only be because sex offenders don’t want their victims to tell anyone. I’m betting that Derek wishes his victim didn’t tell.

  9. “Barry,” (aka Claire/ Ron/ Lauren) you will do anything you can to try to discredit your critics, even to the point of lying. That number you quote keeps moving every time, because Lauren Book is never good at telling the truth.

    The subject of this article is Lauren “The Crook” Book and her lack of ethics. Hiding behind the guise of “helping the childrenzzzzz” doesn’t detract from the FACT that Lauren Book is an unethical piece of crap, just like her criminal daddy, Ron. It doesn’t matter what allegedly happened to Lauren (I’m sure there’s some embellishment on the details), because she is still a crook. You can bash me all I want, it just shows how pathetic YOU are, but your attacks on my can’t detract from the fact that Lauren is a crook. I didn’t write this article.

    Lauren is a crook. And after you post your reBUTTal, Lauren will STILL be a crook.

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