Trump money too hot to handle, but tainted donors back Miami-Dade mayor, opponent

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and School Board Member Raquel Regalado

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and School Board Member Raquel Regalado

As Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez gears up for a tough 2016 re-election battle against Miami-Dade School Board Member Raquel Regalado, the political organizations supporting the two candidates are taking money from donors with scandalous histories.

Miami-Dade Residents First, the political action committee backing Gimenez, received $20,000 from a New York company owned by two brothers convicted in the 1980s of ripping off and terrorizing low-income renters. The PAC also took in $10,000 from a Miami Beach real estate developer who presided over a local nursing home chain that allegedly submitted $130 million in false claims to Medicaid and Medicare.

Not to be outdone, Serving Miamians — the electioneering communications organization supporting Regalado — collected $20,000 from family members of two fugitives from Ecuador accused of stealing nearly half-a-billion dollars from that country’s government.

Contributions from questionable sources show how the campaign finance system has become corrupted as candidates race to out raise opponents, according to government watchdogs interviewed by the Florida Bulldog.

The pro-Gimenez group Miami Dade Residents First has raised $1.2 million since it was formed in January. Serving Miamians has raised $710,185 since it was established in 2013 to further the political careers of Regaldo and her father, Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado.

‘WHAT YOU CAN GET AWAY WITH’

“Andy Warhol once said, ‘art is what you can get away with,’” noted Ken Boehm, chairman of the National Legal and Policy Center in Washington D.C. “Political contributions are the same.”

Ben Wilcox, executive director of Integrity Florida, said committees end up doing the dirty work on behalf of the candidates.

“What we want is accountability for how candidates raise and spend money,” Wilcox said. “In this case, the candidates can use the committees to distance themselves from questionable contributions.”

According to its most recent monthly report, pro-Gimenez Miami-Dade First received $20,000 on June 29 from Amsterdam Hospitality, a Manhattan-based real estate firm owned by Jay and Stuart Podolsky. In 1986, the siblings, along with their father Zenek, pleaded guilty to 37 felonies, including grand larceny and coercion, in connection to dilapidated flophouses they operated in New York City.

Jay and Stuart Podolsky, who received probation for their alleged crimes, did not return two phone messages from the Florida Bulldog.

According to reports in multiple New York media outlets, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office accused the Podolskys of engaging “in a routine of terror to drive tenants out of a single-room-occupancy hotel” by moving “in thieves, drug addicts and prostitutes, who would then rob tenants, start floods and fires, and do drug and sex deals in the hallway.”

By 2010, the Podolskys began converting many of their flophouses into homeless shelters subsidized by New York City taxpayers, according to a 2013 investigative story by New York Magazine.

Housing Solutions USA, a non-profit company the Podolskys control, leases 40 facilities in New York City that are owned by family members and business associates through various holding companies. Those shelters generated rents in the range of $90 million between 2010 and 2013, according to city records analyzed by New York Magazine.

The Podolskys are not the only land barons with baggage giving to help Gimenez via Miami-Dade Residents First.

Russell Galbut, managing principal of Crescent Heights, a national real estate company that owns several prominent Miami Beach hotels, and six corporations he controls gave a combined $10,000 to Miami-Dade Residents First between January and April. From the mid-Nineties until last November Galbut was chairman of the board of directors for Plaza Health Network, a chain of nursing homes founded by his family in 1950 formerly known as Hebrew Homes for the Aged.

PLAZA HEALTH NETWORK’S BIG SETTLEMENT

A 2012 federal whistleblower lawsuit filed by Plaza’s ex-chief financial officer, Steven Beaujon alleged the non-profit scammed Medicaid and Medicare for $130 million during a 10-year period through the submission of false claims for physical therapy provided to patients referred by dozens of doctors who were paid kickbacks. Beaujon’s complaint, which alleges Galbut encouraged staff to implement the kickback scheme and ignored attempts to stop the illegal practice, spawned an investigation into Plaza by the FBI, the Miami U.S. Attorney’s Office and attorneys with the civil division the Department of Justice.

Last month, seven months after Galbut resigned from the board, Plaza agreed to pay the U.S. government $17 million and Beaujon $4.5 million to settle the lawsuit and the civil investigation. According to the settlement agreement, the feds could still bring criminal charges against current and former Plaza Health officials allegedly involved in the scam.

In an emailed response to questions, Galbut denied any wrongdoing during his time on Plaza’s board. He said the nonprofit’s executive staff kept the board of directors in the dark about the Medicaid and Medicare issues.

“I absolutely would not approve or participate in any improper behavior,” Galbut said. “As voluntary chairman of the unpaid board of directors, I did the best I could do.”

Galbut said he gave money to Miami-Dade Residents First to promote good government. “I expect Mayor Gimenez to give his 100 percent effort and commitment to promoting a better quality of life for all of Miami-Dade County’s residents,” he added.

A Gimenez spokesman forwarded requests for comment to Jesse Manzano-Plaza, a spokesman for Miami-Dade Residents First, which returned $15,000 from Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump following his recent controversial remarks about Mexican immigrants.

Manzano-Plaza said there is nothing illegal or improper about the donations given by the Podolskys and Galbut. “We have received over 300 contributions from groups that believe in and support the good government policies and experienced leadership of Mayor Carlos Gimenez,” Manzano-Plaza said.

Likewise, Regalado told Florida Bulldog that there was nothing wrong with Serving Miamians accepting a combined $20,000 from relatives of Roberto and William Isaias, who have showered hundreds of thousands of dollars on Barack Obama and other national Democratic candidates as part of their efforts to fight the brothers’ extradition to Ecuador.

In 2012, the two were sentenced in Ecuador in absentia to eight years in prison. The Ecuadorian government accuses the Isaias brothers of running a bank into the ground by making loans to businesses they controlled and then presenting false balance sheets to get bailout funds. Ecuador claims it lost more than $400 million, and Interpol issued a “red notice,” or international alert, for the Isaias brothers.

Amid their legal troubles, Roberto’s wife, children, daughter-in-law, nephews and employees have donated at least $320,000 to American political campaigns since 2010, according to a New York Times analysis of campaign finance records.

“There are a lot of people who have had issues with the law,” Regalado said. “It is what it is. But what is going on with them is not something that would be an issue for the county mayor.”

Regalado also claimed that only $5,000 of the $20,000 from the Isaias family is helping her mayoral campaign. The remaining $15,000 was given to Serving Miamians when her father, Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado, was running for reelection in 2013.

The National Legal Center’s Boehm said political committees should decline or return contributions from donors whose funds may come from tainted sources like the Isaias case.

“In our view, the ethical thing to do is not to keep the money if it was stolen or swindled,” Boehm said. “We can sit here all day and exchange notes on people involved in outright fraud who give to political campaigns.”

Meet the ‘Dark Money’ phantom; Ohio lawyer at nexus of nonprofit network is conservatives’ secret weapon

By Carrie Levine, Center for Public Integrity 

The West Chester, Ohio, office of Langdon Law LLC, led by David Langdon — a little-known but powerful force behind numerous organizations with conservative political agendas. Photo: Carrie Levine/Center for Public Integrity

The West Chester, Ohio, office of Langdon Law LLC, led by David Langdon — a little-known but powerful force behind numerous organizations with conservative political agendas. Photo: Carrie Levine/Center for Public Integrity

WEST CHESTER, Ohio — Just outside Cincinnati, tucked among insurance agencies, hair salons and a yoga studio, is the nexus of one of the nation’s most mysterious networks pouring secret money into elections.

“Langdon Law LLC Political, Election Nonprofit and Constitutional Law,” reads its small sign, which faces the building’s parking lot rather than the street.

On a Tuesday afternoon last month, that parking lot was empty. No one answered the Langdon Law office door. Phone calls went unreturned. Unlike other heavy-hitting political lawyers, David Langdon doesn’t grandstand.

But don’t overlook him. (more…)

Marco Rubio’s refunds of excessive campaign contributions continue

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio

Sen. Marco Rubio’s campaign continues to trickle out refunds to donors who made excessive contributions last year.

On May 5, Lisa Lisker, assistant treasurer to the recently renamed Marco Rubio for President committee, notified the Federal Election Commission that the campaign had returned $10,000 to Anthony Trey Traviesa, a former Florida state representative from the Tampa area.

Rubio campaign spokesman Alex Conant did not respond to questions sent via email or a request for comment via his Twitter account.

The FEC has sent violation notices to Rubio’s campaign after each of its quarterly report filings in 2014. Until last year, the FEC capped an individual’s contributions at $2,600 per election. In February, the commission raised the limit by $100. The senator’s presidential campaign has raised $917,946 and the Rubio Victory political action committee has raised $1.8 million so far.

The first-term senator has also secured a $10 million pledge from billionaire Miami car dealer Norman Braman and, according to a recent Politico story, is the frontrunner among Republican presidential contenders to win the financial support of billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson.

Lisker reported Traviesa’s refund a month after she notified the FEC that Rubio’s campaign had returned $23,000 in over-the-limit contributions, reclassified another $27,000 for use in the 2016 general election, or applied the excessive contributions to the spouses of donors, federal election records show.

Last week, Lisker said the excessive $10,000 donation from Traviesa had appeared in the campaign’s 2014 end of year report. She also said the refund is noted in Rubio’s most recent quarterly report filed April 15.

“Thank you for bringing this to our attention,” Lisker wrote. “The Committee has reviewed its procedures to ensure that all duplicate donors are identified and that all excessive contributions are reattributed or refunded within the 60-day time limit.”

In four April 11 response letters to the FEC, Lisker explained that the campaign — formerly known as Marco Rubio for Senate — and the separate Rubio Victory PAC had not tracked excessive contributions or duplicate entries. She did not explain why that happened, but assured FEC regulators that the campaign had straightened out the problem.

“The committee now performs reviews of the data weekly to identify any excessive contributions that may have been missed during the initial processing,” Lisker wrote. “Once the excessive contributions are identified, the committee takes steps to either reattribute, re-designate or refund if necessary.”

According to its April 15 report, Rubio’s campaign does appear to be taking better care of keeping tabs on excessive contributions. For instance, Cesar Alvarez, co-chairman of Miami law firm Greenberg Traurig, donated $5,200 for the primary, but the report notes half will either be re-designated for the general election or be attributed to his spouse.

Another donor, Ronald Gidwitz, a principal in the Chicago corporate event management company GCG Partners, also gave $5,200 for the primary, but the report notes $2,700 is being re-designated for the general election.

Tallahassee jackpot: Politicians send millions to charity of lobbyist’s daughter

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Gov. Rick Scott and Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera at an April 22 rally in Tallahassee for Lauren's Kids with Lauren and Ron Book

Gov. Rick Scott and Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera at an April 22 rally in Tallahassee for Lauren’s Kids with Lauren and Ron Book

Over the last four years, Lauren’s Kids, a non-profit founded by the daughter of top Tallahassee lobbyist Ron Book has become one the legislature’s favorite charities, raking in nearly $7 million in taxpayer funds. If and when legislators reconvene to pass a budget, that total is slated to rise to $10.8 million.

The mission of Lauren’s Kids is to raise awareness about child sexual abuse. At the same time, however, Lauren’s Kids has cultivated a symbiotic relationship with important political figures in the Capitol, led by Gov. Rick Scott and Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera.

The politicians get feel-good publicity with photo ops. Lauren’s Kids gets state dollars, and plenty of them.

Legislative appropriation records show that of the 27 special interest groups to be allocated funds from a $19 million pot earmarked this year for “school and instructional enhancements,” Lauren’s Kids will get the most, $3.8 million. More than two dozens youth organizations, including the Girl Scouts of Florida and the YMCA, are to receive less than $300,000 each.

Critics say Book’s political clout gives Lauren’s Kids an unfair advantage over hundreds of applicants vying for state discretionary funds.

“There are so many things this money could be used for,” said Vicky Henry, a national advocate against sexual offender registration laws. “Take some of that $3.8 million and give more to school districts or church and scout organizations.”

Lauren Book, chief executive of Lauren’s Kids, said her non-profit is on the same playing field as others seeking state funds.

“I believe the process is highly competitive,” Book said in an email. “Projects receive intense scrutiny; first in budget subcommittees, then in full committees, on the floors of the chambers, and in joint budget conference committees. Following all of that, an appropriation is vetted by the governor’s staff, and must withstand the gubernatorial veto process.”

Book, who was sexually and physically abused by her nanny for six years starting at age 11, founded Lauren’s Kids in 2007. Her father Ron Book — an attorney who counts the Miami Dolphins, the GEO Group prison company and dozens of cities and counties as clients — is the organization’s chairman. Last year, his firm collected $5 million in lobbying fees, state records show.

SPECIAL TREATMENT FOR LAUREN’S KIDS

Grants aren’t the only way government helps fund Lauren’s Kids. Miami-Dade and Broward counties facilitate individual $1 donations by including a box for people to check on their car registration renewal forms. Lauren’s Kids also has its own state-approved specialty Florida license plate, from which it collects $25 from each sale, according to its web site.

Gov. Scott hugs Lauren Book at the April 22 rally on the steps of Florida's Historic Capitol

Gov. Scott hugs Lauren Book at the April 22 rally on the steps of Florida’s Historic Capitol

Lauren’s Kids tax returns show that from 2011-2013 those $1 car registration renewal donations brought in more than $700,000. How much revenue has been generated by the specialty license tags, approved by the legislature in 2013, was not available.

Ron Book did not respond to Henry’s criticisms or to questions about how Lauren’s Kids got earmarks inserted into the budget.

Lauren Book’s most publicized annual event is “Walk In My Shoes,” a 1,500-mile trek across Florida from Key West to the steps of the old state Capitol building. It’s also a favorite of elected officials.

Book completed her sixth walk on April 22. Joining her at the Capitol were dozens of child sex abuse victims and their families, her father and a line-up of powerful Republicans and Democrats. They included Scott, Lopez-Cantera, Senate President Andy Gardiner, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat and vice chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Education.

Vicky Henry, president of Missouri-based Women Against Registry, organized a protest against Book’s walk by having registered offenders and their family’s picket near the state capitol. Henry said state leaders overzealously shower Lauren’s Kids with attention to stay in her dad’s good graces.

As the top lobbyist for many major corporations in Florida, Book serves as a faucet for campaign cash. For example, Book and clients Steve Ross, owner of the Miami Dolphins, and George Zoley, president of the GEO Group, served together last October on the host committee for a $25,000-a-plate fundraising dinner for Gov. Rick Scott at The Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach.

A PAC ALL HER OWN

Lauren Book, who has hinted at a run for office, formed a political action committee last September called Leadership For Broward that has collected $525,257, mostly from her father’s clients including $100,000 from the Miami Dolphins.

“Do other people involved in child abuse prevention get the same amount of hoopla Lauren’s Kids gets?” said Henry. “No. And they definitely do not get the kind of money awarded to [Book’s] organization.”

Lauren’s Kids most recent tax returns show it received government grants of $486,116 in 2011, $1.6 million in 2012, and $1.1 million in 2013. Most of the combined $2.8 million was from the state.

The organization has yet to file its tax return for 2014, but Book confirmed previous media reports that Lauren’s Kids received $3.8 million from the legislature last year.

 The 29-year-old Book’s annual salary is on a similar upward trajectory, rising from nearly $68,000 in 2011 to $95,000 in 2013.

From 2011-2013, Lauren’s Kids collected $1.4 million in private contributions, more than half coming from the $1 donations via car registration renewals. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in other revenue has come through special events and the sale from books, including Lauren Book’s self-published memoir, It’s Ok to Tell.

Book says the bulk of Lauren’s Kids revenue has been used to create and maintain an educational program called “Safer, Smarter Kids” that trains public school teachers and child caretakers throughout the state on how to identify signs of sexual child abuse and how to report cases to authorities.

Originally targeted to children in pre-kindergarten to third grade, the program has expanded to educate kids in fourth and fifth grades, as well as adolescents in middle and high school. To implement the program, Lauren’s Kids hired Tallahassee advertising firm Sachs Media Group, which was paid a total of $1.6 million between 2011 and 2013. Sachs produces webinars, program materials such as brochures, palm cards and a mobile app, and a 30-minute TV program that was aired on network affiliate television stations throughout Florida, among other media services.

Lauren’s Kids also paid $219,000 to the Monique Burr Foundation in Jacksonville for acting as a go-between with schools participating in the Safer, Smarter Kids program. It paid another $142,000 to the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence for staffing a crisis hotline and developing training materials and conducting training sessions for 15 school districts.

As a result of her organization’s educational program, tens of thousands of Florida children now know to report incidents of sexual abuse, Book said.

Rubio’s new campaign plagued by continuing election law violations

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Sen. Marco Rubio's presidential campaign logo

Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign logo

Two days before he officially announced his run for the presidency last week, Sen. Marco Rubio’s campaign disclosed that it had refunded more than $23,000 in excessive contributions it previously had accepted.

Another $27,000 in over-the-limit contributions originally raised to boost Republican Rubio for a Senate primary election fight was either reclassified for use in the 2016 general election, or applied to the spouses of donors who gave more than the $2,600 maximum per election allowed by federal law, federal election records show.

That $50,000 in refunds, reclassifications and reassignments were in response to violation notices sent by the Federal Election Commission to the campaign after each of its quarterly financial report filings in 2014.

In four April 11 response letters, Rubio campaign assistant treasurer Lisa Lisker said that Rubio’s campaign committee – recently renamed Marco Rubio for President – and the separate Rubio Victory PAC had not tracked excessive contributions or duplicate entries.

“The committee now performs reviews of the data weekly to identify any excessive contributions that may have been missed during the initial processing,” Lisker wrote. “Once the excessive contributions are identified, the committee takes steps to either reattribute, re-designate or refund if necessary.”

Lisker did not explain why the campaign had neglected to track for excessive contributions before being questioned by the FEC.

Rubio’s campaign spokesman Alex Contant did not respond to two emailed requests for comment.

The FEC issued its first warning to Rubio campaign treasurer Keith Davis nearly a year ago, May 28, 2014. The notice said the campaign had received $10,000 in excessive donations from four donors during the prior three-month period. One of the contributors, Ned Lautenbach, gave $10,200, exceeding the limit by $7,600.

Lisker told the FEC Lautenbach, a trustee on the Board of Governors for Florida’s State University System, was refunded $2,600. The remaining $5,000 was split into two $2,500 donations, one for Lautenbach and one for his wife, for the 2016 general election.

MORE FEC LETTERS LAST MONTH

FEC analysts sent Davis two more letters last month that said Rubio’s campaign had reported excessive donations of $18,830 and $6,500 in quarterly reports for July and October 2014.

Indian Creek resident Robert Diener, co-founder of hotels.com, donated $5,100, which was $2,500 above the maximum allowable contribution.

Another donor was Texas pharmaceutical company owner Dian Graves Stai, who exceeded the cap by $7,800.

Lisker told the FEC that one of Diener’s donations was inputted twice by mistake by the campaign. She also said another $800 donation was refunded to Diener three weeks ago, noting that the changes will be reflected in Rubio for President reports due at the end of this month.

Stai’s $7,800 excessive contribution was refunded on Dec. 29 and was noted in the campaign’s year-end report, Lisker wrote.

On April 8, the FEC cited $15,000 in excessive donations during the three months ending in October 2014. One donor, Sandra Reus, vice president of Miami’s Sunshine Gasoline Distributors, gave Rubio’s campaign $9,600 last Dec. 19, exceeding the maximum by $7,000.

Lisker wrote back that $2,600 was applied to the general election under Reus’ name and another $4,400 was applied in the name of Reus’ husband and split into contributions for the primary and the general election.

In an unusual twist, Lisker also told the FEC that the campaign had not received any of the commission’s correspondence.

“It was recently discovered while reviewing the committee’s filings on the FEC website,” Lisker wrote. Apparently, no one at the campaign bothered to check election filings on the FEC’s online database until after FloridaBulldog.org and the Washington Post reported about the excessive donations.

In 2012, Davis and the campaign settled with the FEC after the commission found they had accepted $210,173 in excessive donations for the 2010 primary and general election, the year Rubio was elected to the Senate. The FEC also admonished the campaign for not refunding or redistributing the illegal contributions within a designated timeframe. The campaign paid a $8,000 civil penalty and agreed to enact safeguards to avoid similar errors in the future.

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…)

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