Lauren’s Kids racks up six-figure donations via auto tag registration renewals

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

State Sen. Lauren Book

In January, Broward County car owners who received their auto tag renewal notices also got a special message from Lauren’s Kids, the nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing child sex abuse and founded by freshman State Sen. Lauren Book.

Inside the envelopes, colorful flyers bearing Lauren’s Kids logo wished vehicle registrants a happy birthday while segueing into an ominous stat: “Yet shockingly, 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 5 boys are sexually abused before their 18th birthday.”

That bit of data was followed by a sales pitch. “But there is hope — 95 percent of abuse is preventable through awareness and education. Celebrate your birthday by donating to the Lauren’s Kids foundation and honor the kids in your life.”

Of course, the advertisement includes a disclaimer in small italicized words that the Broward County tax collector’s office, which sends out the notices, is not endorsing Lauren’s Kids.

Drivers with February birthdates weren’t the only ones to find the Lauren’s Kids flyer in their motor vehicle registration renewal envelopes. Broward residents who received renewal notices in March and April also got the insert. Those automobile registrants whose notices are mailed this month are going to get the flyer too, says Paul Rowe, operations manager for the Broward tax collector’s office.

In fact, more than 6 million vehicle owners across Florida likely will have received the flyer stuffed in their auto tag renewal notices by year’s end. For the past seven years, Lauren’s Kids has been part of an exclusive club of charitable organizations approved by the Legislature that are allowed to hit up Florida drivers and vehicle owners for donations via auto tag and driver’s license renewal notices. But none of the other 43 nonprofits on the list has come close to Lauren’s Kids’ haul during a four-year period from 2013 through 2016 — $572,850, according to figures provided by the Florida Division of Motor Vehicles.

The department also contributes to Lauren’s Kids via the sale of specialty license plates approved by the Legislature in 2013. According to its most recent tax records, Lauren’s Kids received $294,653 from the DMV in 2015.

Lauren’s Kids’ success has been made possible by the organization’s aggressive marketing strategy to stuff as many auto tag renewal and driver’s license renewal envelopes with flyers requesting contributions and urging people to buy its specialty tag. The practice raises concerns among ethics watchdogs that government resources are being used to help a private organization raise funds without a public benefit. While the motor vehicle department administers annual auto tag renewals, individual county tax collector offices are responsible for mailing out the notices to vehicle owners.

Conflict of interest?

And now that Book is a state legislator, her nonprofit’s participation in the auto tag renewal raises the possibility of a conflict of interest. “In a perfect world, she would not do it,” said Beth Rosenson, a University of Florida political science professor who teaches government ethics. “It’s an accountability issue that raises questions in constituents’ minds. It leads people not to trust government.”

Ben Wilcox, research director for the government watchdog organization Integrity Florida, echoed Rosenson. “It may be technically correct,” Wilcox said. “But I don’t think it will look good to the public.”

A Lauren’s Kids insert in a Florida Department of Motor Vehicles registration renewal.

In an email response to questions about the inserts, Book dismissed the criticisms. “First of all, none of what we do markets the foundation and you seem to miss the purpose of our messaging,” Book said. “Awareness and education is our focus. Redundancy of message is a part of that.”

She also sees no conflict, Book added. “I have been advised that the work of the foundation may continue as it has for years educating the public and raising awareness about childhood sexual abuse,” she said. “Furthermore, the program is approved by Florida law.”

The Plantation Democrat, whose father Ronald Book is a powerful lobbyist and president of Lauren’s Kids, said she resigned from the board of directors of her nonprofit’s fundraising arm to “add an additional (but entirely unnecessary) layer between myself and the foundation.”

“I derive no personal benefit from public tax dollars except knowing that these monies are being used to save lives, raise awareness and prevent childhood sexual abuse,” she said.

In 2010, the Florida Legislature approved a bill adding Lauren’s Kids to a list of charitable organizations eligible for donations through auto tag registration applications and renewals, as well as driver’s license applications and renewals. The charities are listed on a form with a box next to each organization that the recipient can check off to receive a voluntary contribution. The legislation also allows Lauren’s Kids and the 43 other authorized nonprofits to include inserts promoting their cause in the renewal notices.

According to a 2010 legislative bill analysis and fiscal impact statement, the legislation authorizing Lauren’s Kids placement on the list was sponsored by then-state Rep. Marcelo Llorente from Miami and current Senate President Joe Negron. In order to qualify, Lauren’s Kids was required to submit an application to the motor vehicles department, along with a $20,000 check to “defray the costs of reviewing the application and developing the check-off.”

In addition, Lauren’s Kids had to submit a financial analysis and a marketing strategy outlining the anticipated revenues and planned expenditures to be derived from the voluntary contributions.

DMV passes the buck

However, after nearly four weeks of repeatedly requesting documentation about Lauren’s Kids participation in the program, motor vehicles spokesperson Alexis Bakofsky told Florida Bulldog there was none. “The department does not place Lauren’s Kids educational materials in driver license renewal mailings or have information regarding Lauren’s Kids educational materials being placed in auto tag renewal mailings from tax collector offices,” Bakofsky said. “You may want to contact a Tax Collector office for any additional information.”

Bakofsky did provide Florida Bulldog with a spreadsheet detailing how much money each of the 44 organizations received in fiscal years 2013-2014, 2015 and 2016. In those years, Lauren’s Kids received $161,936, $213,517 and $197,397, respectively. Only one other group has been able to raise a six-figure sum. Support Our Troops collected $108,791 in fiscal year 2013-2014.

The money raised through the renewal notice program is in addition to other funding Lauren’s Kids receives, including $8.5 million in state grants since 2012.

Sen. Book referred specific questions about the program to Lauren’s Kids communications director Claire VanSusteren, who did not respond to a list of 11 questions about the inserts despite four requests for comment via email and voicemail during a two-week period in March.

VanSusteren provided Florida Bulldog only with a copy of Lauren’s Kids 2015 tax return, which states Lauren’s Kids spent $449,785 to “develop an educational piece regarding protecting children against sex abuse that is included with all vehicle registration renewals… the goal is to reach as many individuals with direct messaging as possible.”

The tax return also states “that over 6 million individuals will read the material this year.”

In addition, Lauren’s Kids reaches another 50,000 individuals in December of each year through a “targeted program [that] occurs in driver’s license renewal offices” that provides “educational materials on how to better protect our children from predators and pedophiles.”

Broward County’s Rowe told Florida Bulldog that Lauren’s Kids was added administratively in 2011. “We don’t advertise it to participating charities,” Rowe said. “It’s up to the organizations to submit a request for the inserts to be included.” Only two other nonprofit organizations have asked to include inserts in renewal notices besides Lauren’s Kids, he added.

“Outside of those three, no one else has done it,” Rowe said.

Ms. Book goes to Tallahassee, sees no conflict voting $ for Lauren’s Kids or dad’s clients

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Lauren and Ron Book in Times Square in March 2015 promoting her child sex abuse education book. Photo from the documentary “Untouchable” by David Feige

Freshman Broward State Sen. Lauren Book says she won’t abstain from voting on matters involving clients of her father, powerful lobbyist Ron Book. Similarly, she sees no conflict of interest in voting on measures to funnel millions of taxpayer dollars to benefit her non-profit charity and political launching pad, Lauren’s Kids.

Book, a Plantation Democrat, offered her thoughts on the issue of personal voting conflicts in an email exchange last week with Florida Bulldog.

“No,” she said when asked if she plans to abstain from voting on any matters involving Ron Book’s clients. “In ALL matters, I will vote my conscience and in what I believe is best for my district, for Broward County, and for the people of the State of Florida.”

Sen. Book also said that Lauren’s Kids would again seek significant state funding during this year’s legislative session that began March 7. Does that mean she will abstain from voting on bills to authorize funding for her organization?

“No. I have met with the Counsel of the Senate and have been advised 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 said.

Lauren’s Kids, however, pays Sen. Book a six-figure annual salary for serving as its chief executive. In 2015, her salary was $135,000 – a $20,000 increase from 2014, according to the charity’s federal income tax returns.

“My salary is not paid for with any state funds,” said Sen. Book. “I derive no personal benefit from public tax dollars except knowing that these monies are being used to save lives, raise awareness and prevent childhood sexual abuse.”

Sen. Book said that to make certain her salary includes no state dollars, she “restructured my employment to ensure that no public dollars were used to compensate me for my work” once she declared her candidacy. She declined to elaborate on how she accomplished that restructuring and that separation.

Ron and Lauren Book at a Tallahassee rally promoting Lauren’s Kids in April 2015. Photo from the documentary “Untouchable” by David Feige

Sen. Book did say, however, that she resigned from the board of directors of the Lauren’s Kids Foundation “to add an additional (but entirely unnecessary) layer between myself and the Foundation.”

Lauren’s Kid’s tax return for 2015 – the latest available – shows the charity received more than 83 percent of its $4.5 million in total revenue that year from the state. Since 2012, records show, the state has contributed more than $10 million to Lauren’s Kids.

The Florida Department of Education has requested another $1 million in funding for Lauren’s Kids for Fiscal Year 2017-18 “so we can continue to educate children and families to prevent abuse and help survivors,” said Sen. Book. “I might add, the DOE would only recommend funding if as experts they believed the curriculum was of significant benefit to our children.’’

Ron Book as landlord

Lobbyist Ron Book, the senator’s father, is the unpaid president of Lauren’s Kids. Yet he also makes money from Lauren’s Kids. According to the 501(c) (3) organization’s 2015 tax return, he paid himself $61,651 for renting space to Lauren’s Kids in his Aventura office.

Ron Book, who is also on the charity’s board, collected $63,175 in rent from Lauren’s Kids in 2014, according to that year’s tax return.

Ron Book declined to comment.

On Wednesday, March 22, Sen. Book will face one of the first ethical tests of her nascent political career. As a member of the Florida Senate’s health policy committee, she will be evaluating five bills to establish the rules and regulations for the state’s medical marijuana industry.

While some patient and industry advocates argue the state should open up the market to competition, four of the bills discourage participation by more cannabis providers beyond the seven companies already licensed to manufacture a non-psychoactive, non-smokable form of the drug under a restrictive medical marijuana program set up by the Legislature in 2014.

Among the Florida licensed providers is a joint venture between Homestead-based nursery Alpha Foliage and Surterra, an Atlanta-based medical marijuana company that employs the senator’s father Ron Book as its Tallahassee lobbyist.

While government watchdogs said Sen. Book should abstain from voting on any matters involving her father, she told Florida Bulldog she has no intention of doing so because Florida law and Senate rules do not prohibit it.

“As I stated above, I will follow the letter and spirit of the law in how I vote and how I conduct my business,” she said.

Conflict questions loom

Still, questions about Sen. Book’s potential vote conflicts involving both her father’s 100-plus clients and Lauren’s Kids loom large.

Ben Wilcox, research director for the government watchdog organization Integrity Florida, noted that because Florida has a citizen legislature that allows members to have outside employment, the bar is set low when it comes to ethical requirements.

Florida’s weak Code of Ethics for Public Officers and Employees says that state officers “may not vote on any matter that the officer knows would inure to his or her special gain or loss.” It does not prohibit such votes. Rather, the code says vaguely that officers who vote to benefit themselves or a relative “shall make every reasonable effort to disclose the nature of his or her interest in a public memorandum” that can be filed up to 15 days after the vote.

Integrity Florida Research Director Ben Wilcox

Sen. Book, nevertheless, could face questions when it comes time to vote on an appropriations bill that would include Lauren’s Kids, which advocates against child sex abuse.

“You are not supposed to vote on something that has a direct benefit to you personally,” said Wilcox. “That is where she may get into some trouble if her organization is getting an appropriation from the Legislature.”

Wilcox said Book should also be mindful about voting on matters favorable to her father’s clients. “She should be sensitive to the appearance of a conflict of interest,” Wilcox said. “Even if it technically is not a conflict, it raises questions in the public’s mind and causes the public to lose confidence in government.”

Since founding Lauren’s Kids 10 years ago, Book has seemed on a trajectory for public office. In addition to appearing before the Legislature to lobby in favor of laws that crack down on sexual predators and child abusers, Book has led an annual walk from Key West to Tallahassee to raise awareness for child sex victims that receives statewide media coverage. She’s also written two books, including one for children, about her own experience being sexually abused by her former nanny. Book and her father had a starring role in the recently released documentary about Florida’s sex offender laws called Untouchable.

Book, 32, decided to run for the Senate seat previously held by Eleanor Sobel, who left the Legislature in 2016 due to term limits. After raising more than $1.5 million through her campaign and her political action committee, Leadership for Broward, Book automatically won the seat when no one filed to run against her. A Bulldog analysis of her 2015 and 2016 campaign finance reports and her father’s client list show she received $35,000 from 15 entities that employ Ron Book.

Clients and contributions

Of that amount, her campaign received $1,000 apiece from two of Surterra’s owners, Michael Havenick and Alexander Havenick, who is also vice president and general counsel for Southwest Florida Enterprises, a company that owns several pari-mutuels in the state, including Magic City Casino in Miami. Southwest, four affiliated companies and four other Havenicks also each gave the $1,000 maximum to Sen. Book’s campaign.

According to 2016 lobbyist compensation reports filed with the state, Ron Book’s law firm was paid between $40,000 and $80,000 by Surterra to lobby the Legislature. Ron L. Book P.A. also received approximately $30,000 from Surterra to lobby the executive branch.

Lauren’s Kids has also been the beneficiary of millions of dollars in state funding. According to the organization’s 2014 tax return, Lauren’s Kids received $2.7 million in state grants. Its 2015 tax return shows the nonprofit got $3.4 million that year from Florida’s Department of Education. In 2016, records show, the Legislature awarded Lauren’s Kids $1 million.

A Lauren’s Kids insert in a Florida Department of Motor Vehicles registration renewal.

Florida’s Department of Motor Vehicles also contributes to Lauren’s Kids via the sale of specialty license plates approved by the Legislature. Lauren’s Kids, which got its specialty tag in 2013, received $294,653 from the DMV in 2015, tax records show.

Further, the DMV allows Lauren’s Kids to insert a brochure asking for donations in every auto tag renewal notice mailed to Florida residents. Lauren’s Kids is one of several nonprofits eligible to insert their brochures under the specialty tag program.

Beth Rosenson, a University of Florida political science professor who teaches a course on ethics in U.S. politics, said in an interview that Book might derive a benefit from her father’s earnings as a lobbyist. “Parents always help out their kids,” Rosenson said. “Let’s say she had a medical emergency or something in which she needed money so her father’s financial situation is not something that is totally separate from hers.”

Rosenson said Sen. Book’s potential for conflict is analogous to President Donald Trump and his sons, who have taken over the Republican billionaire’s companies while he’s in the White House. “In a perfect world, she would realize that her relationship with her father raises questions of conflict of interest,” Rosenson said. “So ideally, yes she should recuse herself.”

When it comes to Lauren’s Kids, Integrity Florida’s Wilcox said even if Book’s salary is not being paid with state funds, she should still abstain from voting on matters involving her nonprofit. “In an abundance of caution, that is something she may want to reconsider,” Wilcox said. “While technically it may be correct, I don’t think it will look good to the public.”

Oops…Florida lawmakers scramble to repeal foreign driving law

By Lloyd Dunkelberger and Michael Pollick, Sarasota Herald-Tribune  

Canadians wait to obtain an international driving permit in Montreal on Feb. 14. (Pierre Obendrauf / The Gazette)

Canadians wait to obtain an international driving permit in Montreal on Feb. 14. (Pierre Obendrauf / The Gazette)

Gov. Rick Scott and state lawmakers said they will work to alter or overturn a new law that requires Canadian and other foreign travelers to obtain international permits to drive in Florida.

The law, passed last year by the Legislature and signed by Scott, could be amended as early as March, when lawmakers officially convene. Typically, state laws go into effect in either July or October. (more…)

Canadian tourists fear insurance implications of state’s new driving rule

By Michael Pollick and Justine Griffin, Sarasota Herald-Tribune  

In Canada, lines form as people anxiously pursue international driver's licenses. Photo: Toronto Star

In Canada, lines form as people anxiously pursue international driver’s licenses. Photo: Toronto Star

Just because a law isn’t being enforced doesn’t mean it can’t still bite you — in the wallet, anyway.

In the international driver’s license furor now straining relations between the Sunshine State and the Great North, insurance appears to be the rub. (more…)

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