Federal regulators ask Marco Rubio’s campaign to explain illegal contributions, again

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio

As U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio prepares for a possible 2016 presidential run, federal elections regulators want him to explain why he accepted illegal campaign contributions from 14 donors in his recent year-end campaign finance report.

In an April 8 letter to Rubio’s campaign treasurer Keith Davis, Federal Election Commission (FEC) analyst Jaime Amrhein said that each of the 14 contributors exceeded the maximum amount individuals can give a federal candidate per election.

Some donors to Rubio’s war chest, gave hundreds of dollars over the $2,600 limit, while others gave as much as $2,400 above the cap. One donor, Sandra Reus, who is vice president of Sunshine Gasoline Distributors in Miami, gave the senator’s campaign $9,600 on Dec. 19, 2014, exceeding the maximum by $7,000.

In total, Rubio’s ostensible senate campaign collected $15,000 in excessive donations during the three months ending in October 2014, the letter said.

Reached by telephone, treasurer Davis declined comment. He referred questions to a campaign spokesperson who did not respond to two emails requesting comment. Brooke Sammon, Rubio’s senate spokeswoman, also did not respond.

Rubio is scheduled to hold a public gathering on April 13 at downtown Miami’s iconic Freedom Tower, where he is expected to announce his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination.

According to the FEC letter, Rubio’s senate campaign has not returned the money to the 14 donors. Failure to return excessive contributions is against federal law, but it is not a criminal offense. The FEC gives candidates 60 days from the date of a notice being mailed to give back the fund or amend a report if information was entered incorrectly.

The FEC typically handles report discrepancies administratively, said Sheila Krumholz, executive director for Washington D.C-based Center for Responsive Politics. She said the FEC merely provides a bureaucratic function in making sure campaigns are complying with the law.

“They have never aggressively pursued instances when donors have given excessive amounts,” Krumholz said. “What happens is these donations are not returned for at least a couple of years and it amounts to a nice little loan for a campaign.”

However, Krumholz said voters still have a right to know when campaigns cut corners, especially when a candidate has been previously admonished by the FEC. In Rubio’s case, its not the first time his campaign has run afoul of the rules.

2012 SETTLEMENT WITH FEC

In 2012, Rubio’s campaign and treasurer Davis settled an inquiry by the FEC into $210,173 in excessive contributions accepted for the 2010 primary and general election, the year Rubio was elected to the Senate.

The commission also accused the senator’s campaign of failing to refund or redistribute the illegal donations within a designated timeframe. Rubio’s campaign and Davis claimed only $61,958 was not returned in a timely basis.

As part of the settlement, the senator’s campaign agreed to enact safeguards to avoid similar errors in the future. Rubio had to send a campaign representative to an FEC conference on reporting requirements, develop a compliance manual for campaign staffers, and set up a process to properly respond to inquiries from the commission. The campaign also agreed to pay a $8,000 civil penalty.

However, Rubio’s senate campaign appears to be having trouble living up to its end of the bargain. On May 28, 2014, the FEC sent Davis a letter notifying him that the campaign had received $10,000 in excessive donations from four donors during the three month period ending in April of last year. One of the contributors, Ned Lautenbach, gave $10,200, exceeding the limit by $7,600. Davis did not respond to the letter, according to FEC online records.

Last month, on March 12, FEC analysts sent Davis two more letters stating the senate campaign reported $18,830 and $6,500 in excessive donations in its 2014 quarterly reports for July and October, respectively. Indian Creek resident Robert Diener, co-founder of hotels.com, donated $5,100, which was $2,500 above the maximum allowable contribution.

Another donor, Texas pharmaceutical company owner Dian Graves Stai, exceeded the cap by $7,800. Again, Davis did not reply to the letters, the FEC online records show.

Krumholz said voters should consider the fact that Rubio keeps getting flagged for excessive contributions when determining if he is fit to be president.

“He is asking for a promotion, but he has not shown he can effectively manage the most basic administrative problems with his own campaign,” Krumholz said. “That is always a valid consideration for voters to judge their candidates on.”

Rubio is the second congressional leader from Miami-Dade to face FEC scrutiny over campaign finances in the last six months. Last month, freshman U.S. Representative Carlos Curbelo agreed to pay a $3,200 civil fine to settle an audit into $26,700 in political contributions omitted from his finance reports last year. He also replaced his treasurer with Paul Kilgore, who served the same role for Aaron Schock, the Illinois congressman who resigned in disgrace this February after media stories scrutinizing his congressional expenditure reports showed he spent more than $100,000 in government funds redecorating and renovating his office between Jan. 2009 and late 2014, among other questionable expenses.

Pay for play? Curbelo campaign boosted by School Board vendors he voted to help

By Francisco Alvarado, BrowardBulldog.org 

Miami Congressman-Elect Carlos Curbelo visits Dr. Gilbert L. Porter Elementary School in southwest Miami-Dade.

Miami Congressman-Elect Carlos Curbelo visits Dr. Gilbert L. Porter Elementary School in southwest Miami-Dade.

During his campaign for Florida’s 26th congressional district, Rep.-Elect Carlos Curbelo wasn’t shy about collecting thousands of dollars of campaign contributions from individuals directly tied to corporations that benefited from his vote on the Miami-Dade School Board.

Curbelo’s campaign finance reports filed with the Federal Elections Commission show that two-dozen people who either own or work for companies doing business with Miami-Dade Public Schools gave generously to the Miami Republican’s successful run against incumbent Democrat Joe Garcia.

The companies included charter schools, utility companies, food suppliers, and lobbying firms.

In all, Curbelo’s campaign received $60,700 from School Board vendor interests.

Owners and executives of six firms that had contracts renewed by the school board over the past two years contributed much of that money, $24,300. Curbelo cast a yes vote in support of each of those firms, records show.

In addition, owners and employees of eight other school board vendors with no business pending at that time gave $36,400 to Curbelo’s campaign.

Curbelo’s reliance on political contributions from School Board vendors creates the appearance of undue influence that government watchdogs say underscores the need to enact laws at the local, state, and federal level to prohibit such donations.

“There are pay-to-play laws where this type of scenario is limited or banned,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics based in Washington D.C. “It’s something that certainly merits scrutiny.”

CURBELO’S NOT TALKING

Curbelo, who relinquished his school board seat this month in advance of next month’s swearing in, did not return requests for comment left on his cellphone’s voicemail. Campaign spokeswoman Nicole Rapanos did not respond to emails with a list of questions for the congressman-elect.

Some jurisdictions already have laws in place aimed at curtailing “pay-to-play” political contributions.

In 2006, New Jersey enacted a law prohibiting city and county government agencies (school districts are not included) from awarding no-bid contracts to companies whose owners or employees have made political contributions to a candidate or a political committee. The law does not apply to contracts that are awarded in a “fair and open” bidding process

Locally, Miami Beach enacted a tough vendor ban on political contributions in 2003. City candidates cannot accept donations from developers, lobbyists, company executives or their employees if they have business pending with Miami Beach government. They remain free, however, to contribute money to political action committees and electioneering communications organizations.

Krumholz says laws that eliminate “pay-to-play” political contributions are the kind of campaign finance reform that restores public trust in the electoral process. In Curbelo’s case, she said, it would eliminate the perception that he’s beholden to companies conducting business with Miami-Dade Public Schools.

“While he’s still a sitting school board member, there is a clear opportunity for conflicts of interest to arise,” she said. “He may be inclined to vote based on the money and not the merits of the policy.”

Vendors such as charter schools could also benefit at the federal level now that Curbelo is a congressman, she added.

“It’s never a bad idea to court a sitting member of Congress,” Krumholz said. “Presumably, he can be useful to them in his new position since they already have a cordial relationship based on the contributions they have given.”

Curbelo won a bitter, close race against Garcia that was marked by attacks on both candidates’ character and integrity. On the campaign trail, Garcia often accused Curbelo with being more concerned about lining his own pockets than serving the people. Garcia, who served the last two years in Congress, cited Curbelo’s unwillingness to disclose the client list for his lobbying and public relations firm Capitol Gains, as well as the political contributions he got from companies doing business with Miami-Dade Public Schools.

Curbelo’s campaign has run afoul of campaign finance reporting requirements. Last month, the Federal Elections Commission sent Curbelo’s campaign a warning letter asking it to explain numerous mistakes and inaccuracies with its October filing, including why it had misidentified or omitted $93,000 in contributions from political action committees.

In a response to the FEC, the campaign blamed the mistakes on a software glitch.

Curbelo’s campaign finance reports, school board meeting minutes and contracts show he collected contributions from people who own or manage firms with matters before the school board. The contributions were made a few weeks before or a few weeks after Curbelo cast his vote in favor.

CAMPAIGN MONEY FROM CHARTER SCHOOLS

For instance, four executives from Academica, which operates more than a dozen charter schools in Florida, each gave $2,600 – the maximum an individual can give a candidate per election – to Curbelo’s campaign. Those executives were President Fernando Zulueta, Vice-President Ignacio Zulueta, Senior Vice-President Magdalena Fresen, and Marketing Director Victor Barroso. The Zuluetas and Fresen gave the same day, Sept. 30, 2013. Barroso gave on August 1, 2013.

Six months earlier, Curbelo was among school board members who voted unanimously to approve contracts for five new charter schools operated by Academica, including elementary and middle schools at 9500 SW 97th Ave opposed by the East Kendall Homeowners Federation. The federation is a coalition of condo and town home associations in southwestern Miami-Dade.

According to a May 9, 2013 story in the Miami Herald, neighbors contacted board members before the vote to ask them to reject the schools or at least hold off the vote until the county decided whether or not to approve a re-zoning application submitted by Academica.

“We believe that by the School Board approving these applications you will be putting the cart before the horse, keeping in mind that the approval process from Miami-Dade County has a long way to go,” wrote Jose Suarez, president of the East Kendall Homeowners Federation.

Curbelo told the Herald state law prevented the school board from denying the contract based simply on neighborhood opposition. “We have a ministerial function here,” Curbelo said. “If the entity complies by the law we must approve the charter.”

Two months later, on June 19, 2013, the board, including Curbelo, approved more contracts with Academica regarding a new charter school and renewals for eight existing charter schools.

The Zuluetas referred comment to Fresen, who said the contributions to Curbelo’s campaign were unrelated to Academica’s business relationship with Miami-Dade Public Schools.

“Academica respects the rights of individuals to participate in and support the electoral process and believes that is essential to our democratic system,” Fresen said. “I personally believe that [Curbelo’s] support of parent choice during his tenure on the Miami-Dade County School Board has helped thousands of families in our community. I also believe that he will be a tireless advocate for those families in the U.S. Congress.”

Curbelo also received $2,600 each from Demetrio Perez and Jonathan Hage, owners of two other charter school companies with Miami-Dade schools contracts.

On March 12, Curbelo and seven other school board members voted to extend from five to 15 years the contract for an elementary school in downtown Miami operated by Hage’s Charter Schools USA. Two months later, the board, including Curbelo, voted to approve adding five years to a 10-year-contract with Perez’s Lincoln-Marti Schools.

School board vendors that supply vending machines, children’s lunches, tutoring and electrical services also gave to Curbelo’s campaign.

One of those companies is Hialeah-based AGC Electric. On September 3, 2013, the board, including Curbelo, approved a $4 million contract for electrical services that was split among nine firms, including Hialeah-based AGC.

AGC owner Tomas Curbelo gave Carlos Curbelo’s campaign a total of $5,200 for the primary and general elections in 2013. Tomas Curbelo did not return a phone message left with one of his employees. It is not known if the two men are related.

Marcel Monnar owns the tutoring company One-on-One Learning. On Sept. 20, 2013, he gave Curbelo’s campaign $1,000. Sixteen days later, Curbelo voted with other the board members to award a $3.4 million tutoring services contract among five firms, including One-on-One Learning.

Monnar did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Curbelos’ campaign also received $3,000 from the International Pizza Hut Franchisee Holders Association’s political action committee.

Koning Restaurants International, one of the largest Pizza Hut franchisees in the country, is one of eight pizza makers under contract with Miami-Dade Public Schools.

Koning’s owner, Al Salas, did not return a phone message seeking comment.

Pizza Hut had no apparent school board contracts at stake in the last two years.

Not yet sworn in, Curbelo facing FEC’s questions about campaign finances

By Francisco Alvarado, BrowardBulldog.org 

Miami Congressman-Elect Carlos Curbelo

Miami Congressman-Elect Carlos Curbelo

After running a campaign promising to restore public trust and integrity to the seat he won on Election Day this month, Congressman-Elect Carlos Curbelo is already drawing scrutiny from federal regulators.

On November 14, an auditor with the Federal Elections Commission notified Curbelo campaign treasurer Ed Torgas that an amended quarterly campaign finance report filed in late October is riddled with inaccurate or incomplete information about the donors who gave to the Miami Republican’s run for Congress.

In the 11-page letter, FEC campaign finance analyst Ryan Furman cited the Curbelo campaign’s failure to disclose $52,875 in contributions from political action committees in its initial report filed on October 15. That document said Curbelo only got $40,500 in PAC money.

“Please provide clarifying information as to why this activity was not disclosed in your original report,” Furman wrote.

Torgas could not be reached. Curbelo and a spokeswoman for his campaign did not return phone messages seeking comment. BrowardBulldog.org reported November 1 that Curbelo’s campaign was forced to amend its quarterly report on October 29 because donations from 21 PACs were omitted in its original filing.

The campaign also listed tens of thousands of additional dollars of PAC contributions in the wrong place on the quarterly report – under individual donor contributions – meaning that anyone going to look up the campaign’s PAC contributions would find an incomplete list.

After the Curbelo campaign relabeled the misidentified PAC contributions and added the missing ones, the amended report showed he actually received $93,500 from political committees, including private interests like the National Federation of Independent Business ($2,500), conservative former Congressman Allen West ($5,000) and House Republican leaders like House Majority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La. ($2,000).

Campaign staffers told BrowardBulldog.org that the omissions and misidentified contributions were the result of a glitch with a new software program they were using.

Curbelo beat the incumbent, Democrat Joe Garcia, by capturing 52 percent of the vote to Garcia’s 48 percent. In television and radio spots, as well as on the stump, Curbelo told voters that if elected he would avoid election scandals that dogged Garcia and David Rivera, the Miami Republican who held the seat from 2010 to 2012.

Over the summer, federal prosecutors in Miami identified Rivera as an unindicted co-conspirator who helped finance a ringer candidate against Garcia in the 2012 Democratic primary. Garcia’s ex-campaign manager is under federal investigation for allegedly doing the same against Rivera in the 2010 Republican primary.

Wadi Gaitan, Curbelo’s spokesman until last week, previously told BrowardBulldog.org the campaign always addressed any inaccurate finance reports as soon as staffers discovered them.

“Our campaign takes satisfaction in the fact that we have always adhered to the law – from following election regulations to meeting FEC deadlines,” Gaitan said.

Since organizing in July 2013, Curbelo’s campaign has been beset with problems reporting its finances. Prior to the November 14 notice, the FEC sent the campaign more than a half-dozen so-called “RFAI letters,” or Requests for Additional Information, demanding explanations for missing or unclear information that candidates are required by law to make public.

In its November 18 letter, the FEC identified seven problems with the campaign’s October 29 amended report, in addition to the PAC contributions that had not been listed or were placed in the wrong category.

For instance, Curbelo’s campaign accepted six contributions from individuals and one contribution from a PAC that exceeded the maximum limit allowed by federal law. The contribution cap for individuals is $2,600; $2,000 for PACs.

A committee for Publix Supermarkets gave $6,000. Curbelo’s mother Teresita and Big Sugar scion Jose “Pepe” Fanjul Jr. were among the donors who the FEC said gave more than the maximum. She gave $5,200 and Fanjul gave $5,000.

The FEC also admonished the Curbelo campaign for a number of other violations, including a failure to list the employers for more than three-dozen individual donors, and the full names of several PACs.

Curbelo’s campaign blames glitch for missing $50,000 in PAC contributions

UPDATE: This story, published Saturday morning, was modified Saturday afternoon to account for significant errors contained in recent quarterly financial disclosure reports filed by the campaign of Republican Congressional candidate Carlos Curbelo. The campaign’s errors include misreporting tens of thousands of dollars of PAC contributions as having been made by individuals, failing to disclose nearly $50,000 from other political committees and underreporting the campaign’s total contributions, expenditures and cash on hand.

By Francisco Alvarado, BrowardBulldog.org 

U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, D-Miami, left, and Republican challenger Carlos Curbelo Photo: Univision 23

U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, D-Miami, left, and Republican challenger Carlos Curbelo Photo: Univision 23

Miami Republican Carlos Curbelo’s congressional campaign was forced to resubmit its most recent quarterly finance report after failing to disclose nearly $50,000 in contributions from 21 political action committees.

In its October 15 report, the campaign listed PAC contributions totaling just $40,500 from ten political organizations that included the American Medical Association and the House Conservatives Fund. It also reported additional tens of thousands of dollars of PAC contributions in the wrong place on the quarterly report – under individual donors – meaning that anyone going to look up the campaign’s PAC contributions would find an incomplete list.

But on Wednesday, with less than a week to go to Election Day, the campaign filed an amended report that correctly listed all of those PAC contributions, while also newly disclosing tens of thousands of additional contributions from other political committees, including private interests like the National Federation of Independent Business ($2,500) and conservative former Congressman Allen West ($5,000) and House Republican leaders like House Majority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La. ($2,000).

Two Curbelo campaign staffers, who did not want to be identified, said the incomplete report on October 15 was the result of a glitch with a new software program they were using.

“Our campaign takes satisfaction in the fact that we have always adhered to the law – from following election regulations to meeting FEC deadlines. When needed we have amended our reports, as allowed by the FEC, to correct any filing inaccuracies,” said Wadi Gaitan, a Curbelo spokesman.

Curbelo’s campaign has been plagued by federal reporting problems since it was organized in July 2013. Since then, the FEC has sent the campaign more than a half-dozen so-called “RAFI letters” or Requests for Additional Information, demanding explanations for missing or unclear information that candidates are required by law to make public.

A Washington, D.C. attorney not involved in the campaign who who specializes in FEC matters said the Curbelo campaign’s financial misreporting, and the two-week delay in getting it fixed, appears intended to flummox the opposing campaign of incumbent Democrat, Rep. Joe Garcia.

“If you are deliberately misreporting how much money you have on hand you are trying to gain a strategic advantage over your opponent,” said the attorney, who declined to be named. “$50,000 is a significant amount. The Curbelo campaign had 10 percent more money than they reported having. How much your opponent has affects how you will allocate your resources.”

The Republican Party establishment is betting big on Curbelo, a Miami-Dade School Board Member since 2010 who is locked in a competitive race with Garcia for Florida’s 26th District, which includes all of Monroe County and a large chunk of southwest Miami-Dade County.

Mitt Romney, former Florida governor Jeb Bush and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio are three of Curbelo’s biggest endorsers. Roughly 16 percent of his campaign’s $1.9 million war chest came from national Republican political action committees.

Throughout the campaign, both candidates have attacked their personal connections to scandals and controversies.

Curbelo has told voters they can’t trust Garcia because his former campaign manager, Jeff Garcia (no relation), pleaded guilty last year to absentee ballot fraud and is currently under federal investigation for planting a ringer candidate in the 2010 Republican primary. Garcia has countered that Curbelo is not trustworthy because he will not disclose who his lobbying clients are.

Now, Garcia’s campaign is having trouble keeping track of groups funding Curbelo. Curbelo’s campaign workers said the omissions in the October 15 finance report were not intentional. They said the campaign began using a new software program at the end of September to electronically file its campaign finance reports with the Federal Elections Commission.

“While transferring data to the new program, the coding got damaged,” one worker said. “As we approached the deadline, we decided to file a report with the best information we had available.”

By acting swiftly to correct the problem, the FEC won’t sanction the Curbelo campaign, the workers insisted.

Sheila Krumholz, executive director for the Washington D.C.-based Center for Responsive Politics, disagreed.

“It should certainly raise the attention of the FEC,” Krumholz said. “They are more concerned about discrepancies and conflicts in the reports than they are with a campaign volunteering in a timely fashion that they made a mistake.”

With only days before Tuesday’s election, it’s critical for campaigns to have complete and accurate reports on time, Krumholz explained.

“The impression is if the candidate hasn’t done a good job managing their own campaign reports, how will they be able to manage the people’s business?” she said. “We expect people to have well-organized campaigns so they don’t have such problems.”

Koch foundation sought control at FSU: Teach our curriculum, get millions

By David Levinthal, Center for Public Integrity universitymoney

In 2007, when the Charles Koch Foundation considered giving millions of dollars to Florida State University’s economics department, the offer came with strings attached.

First, the curriculum it funded must align with the libertarian, deregulatory economic philosophy of Charles Koch, the billionaire industrialist and Republican political bankroller. (more…)

Koch-funded think tank offers anti-government, pro-market courses for use by teachers

By Chris Young, Center for Public Integrity

Charles Koch at the Philanthropy Roundtable Annual Meeting in 2011. KochfactsTV/Youtube

Charles Koch at the Philanthropy Roundtable Annual Meeting in 2011. KochfactsTV/Youtube

Pop quiz, teachers: Would you like to inject a strong dose of libertarianism into the curriculum you take back to school this fall?

If you answered yes, then a Koch-funded think tank has exactly what you need. And it won’t cost you or your school a penny.

The EDvantage, a project of the libertarian Institute for Humane Studies, bills itself as an online “curriculum hub for pioneering educators.” (more…)

Scott campaign ad touting jobs record stars convicted smuggler

UPDATE 8/18: A spokesman for Gov. Rick Scott’s campaign said Monday afternoon that a campaign television ad touting Scott’s jobs program and starring a man convicted of human trafficking is no longer being aired.

“It was not pulled,” said Greg Blair. “The run simply ended” last week.

Blair’s comments came hours after BrowardBulldog.org published a story about the 30-second spot with Tampa grocer Maikel Duarte-Torres, who four years ago was convicted of smuggling in St. Maarten. Blair declined to answer any more questions.

By Francisco Alvarado, BrowardBulldog.org 

A Rick Scott television ad features the governor shoulder to shoulder with flag-waving smuggler Maikel Duarte-Torres

A Rick Scott television ad features the governor shoulder to shoulder with flag-waving smuggler Maikel Duarte-Torres

A Cuban-born grocery store owner starring in a Rick Scott Spanish language television campaign ad touting the governor’s job creation record was convicted on human smuggling charges in St. Maarten four years ago.

Maikel Duarte-Torres, who gives Gov. Scott a hug and a plug in the 30-second spot, is featured as a Florida success story.

“Four years ago, the economy was very bad. Rick Scott helped Florida’s economy and you can see the difference. He’s created jobs. That’s why I support Rick Scott. I’m just like him. I’m like the American Dream,” Duarte-Torres said in the commercial filmed during a campaign stop at his Tampa store in May.

Gov. Scott, his campaign staff, and the Republican Party of Florida were apparently unaware, however, that Duarte-Torres was arrested on Nov. 14, 2010, in the Caribbean nation for his alleged role in a smuggling ring that attempted to ferry 10 Cuban migrants from St. Maarten to Miami. Duarte-Torres was convicted five months later by a St. Maarten criminal court judge.

duarteHe was sentenced to two years in prison, but only served two days because of jail overcrowding on the island, according to Tineka Kampfe, a spokeswoman with the St. Maarten Attorney General’s office. Kampfe told BrowardBulldog.org that Duarte-Torres was allowed to return home to Tampa on the condition he never steps foot in St. Maarten again.

Duarte-Torres did not return three phone messages left on his cellphone voicemail. He also did not respond to a letter faxed to his business, MD Foot Market, located at 4019 W. Hillsborough Ave. in Tampa.

NO RESPONSE FROM THE GOVERNOR’S CAMPAIGN

Greg Blair, a spokesman for the Rick Scott for Florida campaign, and Susan Hepworth, a spokeswoman for the Republican Party of Florida, also did not respond to a list of questions emailed to them about Duarte-Torres.

David Custin, a Miami-based political consultant who has worked for Republican candidates running for state and federal office, says Scott’s campaign and the Republican Party should quickly cut ties with Duarte-Torres and stop running the ad, which began airing in the Miami market on local station America Teve in late July.

“It’s pretty bad to have the governor running an ad with a convicted human trafficker,” Custin says. “But if his people respond quickly and own up to what happened, then it won’t be as bad as sweeping it under the rug and not dealing with it.”

Duarte-Torres is a member of the “Small Business for Scott” Coalition, a group of more than 100 business owners from 67 counties who have endorsed the governor for re-election. In May, Scott and Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera made a campaign stop at MD Food Market, where Duarte-Torres flanked the two politicians as they fielded questions from local reporters.

Duarte told the Tampa Bay Times that his store employs 18 people full-time and that he dreams of owning a chain of MD Food Markets. “I started with a watermelon in my hand, selling fruits and vegetables on Lois Avenue,” Duarte said. “Things have grown from there.”

Gov. Scott and Duarte-Torres embrace in the Scott campaign ad

Gov. Scott and Duarte-Torres embrace in the Scott campaign ad

During the photo-op, a film crew also shot footage for the commercial featuring Duarte-Torres. The spot, paid by the Republican Party of Florida, shows the 32-year-old Cuban stocking items on the shelves, interacting with his employees, and giving in an interview in Spanish.

“The most important thing [in Florida] are jobs,” Duarte-Torres said in the ad. “Let’s continue working toward that.”

DETAILS ABOUT THE SMUGGLING

Duarte-Torres was the alleged mastermind of the human smuggling ring busted in St. Maarten. Several articles published by Today, the island nation’s daily newspaper, detail Duarte-Torres’ crime.

At his trial in March 2011, Duarte-Torres said that he traveled to St. Maarten at the request of a friend to deliver $2,000 to Erold Montgomery Bolan, a 64-year-old cab driver who assisted human smugglers in transporting illegal aliens from Haiti and Cuba across the Florida Straits. Duarte-Torres claimed the money was payment for moving two Cuban girls from St. Maarten to the U.S. Virgin Islands.

However, M.L.P. Ridderbeks, the prosecutor in the case, argued that Duarte-Torres played a larger role in a ring that had brought over ten Cubans to St. Maarten on a boat called the Braveheart. Ridderbeks said the migrants each paid $12,500 to the smugglers. Duarte-Torres maintained contact with Erold Bolan and with a Cuban woman known as “Adele” in St. Lucia to organize the transport of the 10 migrants.

Kampfe, the attorney general’s spokeswoman, confirmed Duarte-Torres was found guilty and sentenced to two years, but was released because there was no room for him in the local jail. Kampe provided BrowardBulldog.org with a birthdate and Tampa address for Duarte-Torres that matches records in background report on the MD Food Market owner.

Custin says it is unlikely the Republican Party or Scott’s campaign were aware of Duarte-Torres’ conviction. “It’s not a presidential or congressional race that requires a high degree of vetting and research before you use the person in an ad,” Custin explains. “They don’t do international background checks on people.”

Duarte-Torres has not been arrested for any crimes in Florida.

The rise of a political rainmaker: Helping mayors of Miami-Dade, Broward find big money

By Francisco Alvarado, BrowardBulldog.org 

Brian Goldmeier and clients, Broward Mayor Barbara Sharief and Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez

Brian Goldmeier and clients, Broward Mayor Barbara Sharief and Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez

Since helping elect Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez three years ago, Brian Goldmeier is South Florida’s least known, yet most sought after political rainmaker.

Goldmeier, a 31-year-old professional fundraiser, has collected $627,359 in consulting fees since 2011, according to campaign finance reports submitted by his clients. He has raised money for Gimenez, three Miami-Dade County commissioners, and promoted a slew of successful referendums that included a $1.2 billion bond issue for Miami-Dade Public Schools and an additional half penny sales tax to help operate Jackson Memorial Hospital.

Goldmeier also has expanded into heavily-Democratic Broward County where he’s in charge of enlisting political donors to show up at County Mayor Barbara Sharief’s upcoming $1,000-a-pop fundraiser “per person, business entity & PAC.” The event is set for June 25 at YOLO restaurant in downtown Fort Lauderdale.

The hustling Goldmeier’s meteoric rise signals a new trend in the local realm of political fundraising. Candidates and political action committees are turning to Goldmeier to do the dirty work of picking the pockets of lobbyists, non-profit groups, and companies doing business with county government.

“Raising money is the thing every candidate hates to do,” says Miami public relations consultant Ric Katz. “Having someone brazen enough to get people to open up their wallets takes the pressure off them. Brian is very good at that.”

FIRST JOB WITH ALEX SINK

Alex Sink, who gave Goldmeier his first political job raising money for her failed 2010 gubernatorial bid, says he is one of the most tenacious people she’s met.

“He doesn’t take no for an answer,” Sink says. “You can’t be shy in the world of political fundraising.”

So who is Goldmeier? Despite his high-profile status and in-your-face style, he shies away from the public eye. He did not respond to two emails and two voice messages on his cell phone requesting comment.

Goldmeier, the son of Miami-based shopping mall and hotel developer Barry Goldmeier, graduated from Cheshire Academy, a Connecticut boarding school, and then earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Endicott College in Massachusetts, according to online newsletters for both academic institutions. Following his college graduation in 2002, Goldmeier worked several years as an events coordinator and tennis coach for Endicott.

Sink met Goldmeier in 2008. He had returned to Miami as a volunteer for Hillary Clinton during her failed bid for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. A year later, Sink hired him to raise money based on a friend’s recommendation. He sought donors from the office of Brian May, a Miami-Dade lobbyist who was subsequently fired from the Sink campaign after he broke the rules of a debate prohibiting electronic messages being sent to the candidates.

“Brian has no problem asking people for money,” says May. “In the Sink campaign, he pushed hard. At times, donors would get a little ruffled and the higher-ups in the campaign would get upset at him.”

Sink acknowledged that she or others had to reign in Goldmeier’s aggressiveness on occasion. “Oh sure, I had complaints about him,” she says. “Sometimes, you have to tell him to wait a minute and hit the pause button.”

GIMENEZ’S FINANCE DIRECTOR

After Sink’s narrow defeat, Goldmeier stayed in Miami, landing a job as finance director for then-county commissioner Gimenez’s political action committee, Common Sense Now. His first payment was for $5,750 on Dec. 1, 2010.

Four months later, voters recalled then-Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez and Gimenez decided to throw his name on the ballot for a special election in May 2011 to elect a new mayor. With Goldmeier continuing to raise campaign donations, Gimenez entered a crowded field that included then-Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina and former state Rep. Marcelo Llorente.

“With Gimenez, it was tough at the beginning for Brian,” May says. “By the time Gimenez made the runoff, Brian had refined his approach, using a softer touch with donors.”

Goldmeier continued dialing for dollars immediately after Gimenez beat Robaina in the June 2011 run-off. The mayor had a short window to amass another war chest before the next election in August 2012. Common Sense Now collected close to $2 million in a one-year span, mostly due to Goldmeier’s relentless soliciting of campaign donations from people doing business at County Hall.

For his efforts, Gimenez’s political action committee paid Goldmeier’s firm, BYG Strategies, $220,076 in consulting fees, plus a $20,000 bonus. In addition, Goldmeier got another $44,919 from Gimenez’s re-election campaign.

One lobbyist, who asked to remain anonymous, says he disliked Goldmeier from the moment he met him. “I promised Gimenez I would raise a few bucks for him,” the lobbyist says. “That led to Brian calling me every half-hour. The guy’s a jerk, but he is effective.”

Goldmeier has parlayed Gimenez’s victories into more fundraising jobs. Building for Tomorrow, a political action committee organized to promote a successful $1.2 billion bond issue for Miami-Dade Public Schools in 2012, paid BYG $74,507.

During the same election cycle, he pocketed $9,000 in fees from another political action committee that pushed a referendum to expand the Key Biscayne Tennis Center. Goldmeier made $154,046 in fees raising money for last year’s Jackson Memorial Hospital campaign for an extra half penny sales tax. The Miami Dolphins also retained him, doling out $9,000 in consulting fees for a referendum that never happened because the Legislature rejected owner Stephen Ross’ attempt to put public financing of Sun Life Stadium improvements on the ballot.

RACKING UP CONSULTING FEES

Today, Goldmeier is working the phones on behalf of the re-election campaigns of incumbent Miami-Dade county commissioners, Lynda Bell, Jean Monestime and Jose “Pepe” Diaz. So far, Diaz is running unopposed.

Commissioners’ campaign finance reports show that Goldmeier’s firm to date has racked up $43,451 in consulting fees. Political action committees supporting the commissioners have paid BYG another $52,360. He’s mainly been tasked with corralling prominent donors for events featuring Gimenez and politically connected hosts.

For instance, Goldmeier set up an April 2013 fundraiser for Bell hosted by the mayor at the house of Rafael and Vicky Garcia-Toledo. Rafael Garcia-Toledo was Gimenez’s campaign finance chairman and chauffeured the mayor to events during the 2011 special election and the 2012 re-election campaigns. Garcia-Toledo’s wife is a high-powered lobbyist whose clients include Genting Group, the Malaysian casino giant and owner of the old Miami Herald headquarters.

The host committee included some prominent Democrats, such as attorney Alex Heckler, who has raised tens of thousands for the Clintons, and Freddie Balsera, a political consultant who is President Obama’s main pitchman to Hispanics in Florida. Interestingly, Bell is one of the most conservative Republicans on the county commission.

Bell, Monestime, and Diaz did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Democrats skirmish over open Broward House seat

By Buddy Nevins, BrowardBulldog.org 

Florida House candidates Steve Perman and Kristin Jacobs

Florida House candidates Steve Perman and Kristin Jacobs

Broward County political campaigns run on food. Bagels and cream cheese, Danish, hummus, spaghetti, barbeque and fruit salad for vegetarians who might show up at a political event – all paid for by candidates.

One recent evening, Florida House candidate Steve Perman brought eight pizzas and eight two-liter bottles of soda along with scores of his campaign flyers to the hungry members of the Margate Regular Democratic Club.

Perman, a chiropractor, hovered over the handful of Democrats hunched over greasy paper plates, answering questions and asking for votes.

For Perman, this sleepy night in May was just one more campaign stop leading up to the key Aug. 26 Democratic primary for the House seat in District 96. A few more hands are shaken. A few more backs are patted. And another speech is ended with the quip, “When you send a chiropractor to Tallahassee, you don’t have to worry. I’ve got your back.”

The Coral Springs resident has been at it for months. It clearly shows.

“I’m tired,” Perman, 57, conceded.

Although House District 96 is relatively compact, stretching from Pompano Beach to Parkland along the northern border of Broward, the campaign for one of the House’s open seats is strenuous and often exhausting. The district’s current occupant, state Rep. Jim Waldman, a Coconut Creek Democrat who endorsed fellow Democrat Perman, is retiring because of term limits.

Candidate Perman hovers over Democratic pizza eaters  Photo: Buddy Nevins

Candidate Perman hovers over Democratic pizza eaters Photo: Buddy Nevins

Perman’s opponent in the primary is Democratic County Commissioner Kristin Jacobs, 54, who said she is often exhausted, too. Jacobs, a grandmother, has been campaigning door-to-door with her non-political husband, Stuart, in tow.

“I have to remind him to smile,” said Jacobs, of Pompano Beach.

She estimated she has met thousands of likely voters picked from lists of registered Democrats who have a history of voting in primaries.

A SAFE SEAT FOR DEMOCRATS

Both candidates are campaigning only among Democrats because District 96 is safely Democratic, and victory in the primary will be tantamount to election in November.

About 46 percent of the district’s 99,460 voters as of May 1 are registered Democrats, compared with 25 percent who are Republicans and 29 percent who listed no party affiliation or registered with other parties.

The campaign will boil down to two phases. The first phase, now underway, involves personally meeting voters. Political consultants and the candidates predict a low turnout. They foresee as few as 8,000 voters will take part in the primary. Thus, knocking on doors and meeting a handful of voters at club meetings could conceivably make a difference.

The second phase will be the withering blast of negative advertising both candidates expect in the closing days of the campaign. The ads will focus on their personal differences and a handful of past votes. “She’s going to paper me,” Perman predicted.

“Part of a campaign is to tell people about your opponent,” Jacobs said. Both candidates will have plenty of money to get their message to voters.

As of April 30, Jacobs had raised $123,818, mostly from firms and people doing business with the county.

Perman had raised $49,714, the overwhelming majority from chiropractors.

Jacobs said of Perman’s campaign finances, “He’s not going to be the representative of Broward. He’s going to be the representative of the chiropractors.”

Perman got his political start as a lobbyist for his fellow chiropractors. With an office in west Boca Raton since 1993, Perman had been a lobbyist for the state’s chiropractors for a decade when in 2006, he decided to run for a Palm Beach County-based House seat. He lost, the first of four races he ran in a district far from his Coral Springs home that stretches from south Palm Beach County through rural areas to Lake Okeechobee. Of the four races, Perman won only when he was unopposed in 2010, winning a term in the House. He lost that seat in the 2012 Democratic primary.

During his two years in the House, Perman sponsored and got passed The Nursing Home Division Law, which allowed low-income seniors to receive home care rather than being institutionalized. He also sponsored a law increasing the penalties for stolen credit and debit cards and another law extending tax breaks for the creation of new small businesses or the expansion of existing ones.

As a member of the agriculture committee, he passed a bill that increased clean water storage capacity by allowing farmers to lease land to the state for water storage without losing property rights.

PERMAN’S PAST IN PALM BEACH

It is Perman’s repeated quests for a House seat in Palm Beach County that has become an issue in the campaign.

“He’s never been engaged in Broward County in the past,” Jacobs said. “He’s never been part of advocating for Broward County. He’s been advocating for other places, while living in Broward County. I’ve been advocating for Broward County for 16 years.”

Perman fired back, “I fully supported the (Broward) delegation’s legislative agenda on the floor of the House and in committees. Interestingly, I do not recall Commissioner Jacobs ever reaching out to me…to discuss any Broward issues or enlist my support for Broward. Even so, I always voted in full support of Broward County and its residents, both on the floor in Tallahassee and at delegation meetings at home.”

Jacobs was the president of the North Andrews Neighborhood Homeowners Association near Fort Lauderdale when she beat veteran County Commissioner Sylvia Poitier in 1998. Poitier, who was backed by the development industry and was the only African-American on the commission, had the support of the county’s entire political establishment, which pumped $230,479 into her campaign.

Jacobs, a political unknown who had only $15,682 in contributions, won by pounding Poitier as an ethically lax tool of political insiders. It was one of the most stunning upsets in Broward history.

In Jacobs’ only tough race since – a 2012 campaign for Congress against now U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel – she was crushed.

On the County Commission, Jacobs is one of the state’s most outspoken voices on a wide range of environmental issues. She is most passionate about finding enough clean water and offering alternative transportation options, such as bike paths and buses. She was recently named to a White House task force on global climate change, a vital issue for low-lying Florida.

Jacobs was the sparkplug behind the ordinance requiring companies doing business with the county to pay their employees a living wage. She also has been an advocate for affordable housing.

Candidates’ past votes haunt them in campaigns, and the District 96 race is no exception.

In speeches, Jacobs has been pounding Perman for voting to allow state money to be used by the poor to pay for private school tuition. Perman said that many “good Democrats” such as Waldman voted along with him for HB 965 in 2011. Eighteen legislators, including some Broward Democrats, voted against the bill. The bill provided “private school scholarships to students from families that meet specified income limitations,” according to the final bill analysis by the Legislature. The money came from corporations and other groups that received a tax credit for funding the vouchers.

“The bill he voted for was the first step towards expanding the use of vouchers, which allows more tax money to be taken from the public schools,” Jacobs said.

Perman said he has been careful not to stridently attack Jacobs publicly, fearful that he would look like a bully picking on a grandmother. However, in private, Perman was not reticent about mentioning some of the votes Jacobs has cast that he believes are wrong.

JACOBS VOTED TO EXPAND NORTH BROWARD DUMP

Jacobs voted in 2011 to allow the 21.3-acre expansion of the Monarch Hill landfill on Wiles Road just east of Coconut Creek and Florida’s Turnpike. The vote could be controversial in the campaign since parts of District 96 are periodically plagued with wind-blown foul smells from the landfill. Monarch Hill has successfully resolved numerous odor-related violation complaints from the county in the past.

Jacobs said that Coconut Creek, the city most affected by the landfill, signed an agreement with the landfill operator five years ago to allow the facility to expand in return for stepped-up attempts to damp down the smell. She called the county’s vote “ministerial” and noted that “no one from the city objected….It was a unanimous vote.”

Perman’s campaign manager, David Brown, also said that Jacobs took $35,000 in campaign contributions from the Florida Panthers, team officials and lobbyists and related interests. The contributions were made before the hockey team’s request for more money from the county’s bed tax. The campaign funds were for her losing 2012 congressional race and the current House campaign.

“There has been no vote for the Panthers. It has been postponed and probably won’t come up while I am still at the commission,” said Jacobs, who leaves the county’s Government Center in November because of term limits. She contended that despite the contributions, she has never supported the Panthers’ request. “I’m beholden to no one,” she said.

Both candidates sounded remarkably alike when asked why voters should choose them over their opponent.

“There are 120 House members and only one-third of them are Democrats. We need to send up our A Team to represent Democrat values, and I’ve been part of Broward County’s A Team for 16 years,” Jacobs said.

“We need a strong voice in Tallahassee,” Perman said “I’ve proven I can work with both Republicans and Democrats….It’s what I did in a state Legislature which was very hostile territory.”

Outside groups dwarf candidate spending in Florida special election

By Michael Beckel, Center for Public Integrity 

Democrat Alex Sink, left, and Republican David Jolly

Democrat Alex Sink, left, and Republican David Jolly

The campaign money machines of Democrat Alex Sink and Republican David Jolly have not just been matched by outside forces, they’ve been lapped.

Roughly $12.5 million has flooded the heated special election in Pinellas County on central Florida’s gulf coast, but less than one-third of that sum was controlled by the candidates’ own campaigns, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of federal records. (more…)

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