Democracy inaction: old equipment and partisan battles threaten election integrity nationwide

By Nicholas Kusnetz, Center for Public Integrity voting

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The offices in a former Kohl’s department store here look inconsequential enough — linoleum floors, fluorescent lights and cookie-cutter furniture. But what happens in this strip mall, and other equally nondescript settings nationwide, could in fact be crucial to the struggle over America’s voting laws and apparatus — a struggle that may go a long way toward determining the outcome of next November’s presidential election.

The Franklin County Board of Elections moved to the north side of this capital city last year after using the site in 2012 to accommodate the rush of people who cast their ballots during Ohio’s early voting period. But that early voting policy is still not set in stone — its duration and details have been stretched and squeezed repeatedly over the past few years by both state law and court order, part of a bitter clash between Democrats and Republicans over access to the ballot, electoral integrity and resources. (more…)

Convicted thief sets up South Florida super PAC with Federal Election Commission’s OK

By Francisco Alvarado, unum

Four years after being convicted of stealing $35,000 worth of textbooks from Ohio State University’s law school library, Christopher Brian Valdes set up a super PAC this month in South Florida with the blessing of the Federal Election Commission.

Valdes, 28, of West Palm Beach, filed a “statement of organization” for Rescue Our Future with the FEC on Aug. 9 and listed himself as treasurer. The 28-year-old felon says he wants to use the political committee to raise unlimited amounts of money to help elect Jeb Bush president in 2016.

While convicted criminals may legally start and operate a super PAC, there’s no way for the public or prospective donors to know it if they do. The FEC, which regulates campaign finance, does not require PAC officials to disclose their criminal history.

Last month, FEC Chairwoman Ann M. Ravel issued an unusual public warning about the rise of what she called “scam PACs” – fundraising groups run by con artists who prey on small donors unhappy with their elected officials.

“It is assumed the money raised will go to help elect or defeat a candidate. In reality, the money raised largely gets funneled into the pockets of the political operatives who set up these organizations,” she wrote in in a July 13 commentary published by Roll Call.

Valdes did not want to discuss his crime in detail with “It was bad decision that is in the past,” he said. “I have moved forward.”

He said in an interview, however, that he wants to raise money to pay for mailers and radio ads touting the former Florida governor.

“Even if Bush gets on the Republican ticket, it is not a sure fire thing that he will win Florida in 2016 just because he is a former governor,” Valdes said. “The state has voted for a Democrat in the last two presidential elections. I believe Rescue Our Future can do a lot to help him.”

Valdes said he is not affiliated with the Bush campaign and is going to campaign for Bush on his own. Whether the campaign wants a convicted thief trolling for dollars on Bush’s behalf remains unclear. Bush’s press office did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

According to a Sept. 6, 2011 story in the Columbus Dispatch, authorities accused Valdes of pilfering more than 200 books that he then advertised for sale online between November 2009 and October 2010. At the time, Valdes was a student of the Moritz College of Law.

Campus police initiated an investigation after receiving an e-mail from a Brazilian lawyer who had bought a volume online and found a crossed-out Ohio State University ink stamp on its inside front cover, according to court documents. Investigators arrested Valdes after setting up a sting involving a hidden camera and a marked book.

To avoid prison, Valdes agreed to plead guilty to a felony. He was placed on five years probation and ordered to pay $34,600 in restitution for books he sold online. Valdes also agreed that he “will not have or pursue employment or education in the field of law,” according to the details of his guilty plea in Franklin County Common Pleas Court.

Valdes claims he has completed his probation and that his voting rights were recently restored. “I have not gotten into any trouble since then,” he said. “And there is nothing on my record before that. It was an unfortunate incident that I’ve put behind me.”

FEC Commissioner Ravel could not be reached for comment. But in her commentary last month she said her agency is powerless to stop “scam artists” intent on ripping off donors.

“The FEC has, for many years, unanimously approved recommendations to Congress that would have taken small steps toward addressing scam PAC activity,” Ravel wrote. “After all, a role of the FEC is to protect consumers, the American voting public, from those who don’t use money contributed to campaigns for proper purposes.

She added: “Unless Congress takes action and gives the FEC the tools to regulate scam PACS, we can expect this problem to grow.”

Pipeline company with tie to Gov. Scott, and state backing, has history of accidents

By Dan Christensen, 

With the Clinton Presidential Center in the foreground, this photo shows a Spectra Energy pipeline blowout beneath the Arkansas River in Little Rock on May 31. Photo Courtesy: Tony Cassady

With the Clinton Presidential Center in the foreground, this photo shows a Spectra Energy pipeline blowout beneath the Arkansas River in Little Rock on May 31. Photo Courtesy: Tony Cassady

Spectra Energy, the company that state environmental regulators say should be allowed to construct a 267-mile-long natural gas pipeline in North Florida, has a checkered history of accidents and violations of federal safety rules in the U.S. and Canada dating back decades. reported last week that Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection is backing the award of a key environmental permit for the controversial $3-billion Sabal Trail pipeline to a joint venture majority-owned by Houston-based Spectra Energy.

Spectra Energy’s investors have included Gov. Rick Scott. On last year’s financial disclosure form, Scott reported owning a $108,000 stake in Spectra and its affiliate, DCP Midstream Partners. His latest disclosure form, filed in June, no longer details Scott’s securities holdings because he put those assets into a blind trust.

The underground Sabal Trail Transmission is proposed as a nearly 500-mile interstate natural gas pipeline to run from Alabama, through Georgia south to Orange County, south of Orlando. Spectra owns 59.5 percent; Florida Power & Light parent NextEra Energy owns 33 percent; and Duke Energy, which spun off its natural gas business to form Spectra in 2007, recently paid $225 million for a 7.5 percent stake.

Federal and state election records show that FP&L, Duke Energy and their affiliates together have contributed $1.4 million to Let’s Get to Work, the political committee branded with Scott’s campaign slogan. They also gave a total of $5.8 million to the Republican Governors Association in 2013-14, which in turn contributed $18.3 million to Let’s Get to Work last year.

Gov. Rick Scott

Gov. Rick Scott

Spectra Energy operates approximately 22,000 miles of natural gas pipelines in North America. U.S. and Canadian agency files detail the company’s problematic safety record.

From 2006 to date, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration recorded 25 incidents that caused more than $12 million in property damage along Spectra’s main line – the 9,000-mile Texas Eastern Transmission that connects Texas and the Gulf Coast with big urban markets in the Northeast. The causes ranged from equipment failure and incorrect operations to pipe corrosion.

The agency found numerous federal rules violations during the same period and slapped Spectra with a total of $400,000 in fines – not counting another $59,000 proposed penalty for failing to construct a pipeline in Pennsylvania in accordance with written specifications.

Spectra’s press office did not respond to detailed requests for comment made over two days.

Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection issued its July 10 notice of intent to issue the permit and easement for Sabal Trail without a public hearing. The WWALS Watershed Coalition, a Georgia based nonprofit and environmental advocate, filed an objection to the permit last week and the department is considering its response.

Was Spectra’s safety record considered in DEP’s decision?

“The department assesses a permit application based on Florida statutes and rules to ensure that all aspects of the proposed operation follow Florida law and are protective of the environment and human health and safety,” DEP spokeswoman Lori Elliott said in a Wednesday statement.


Spectra’s most recent pipeline accident was the dramatic rupture of an auxiliary pipe along its Texas Eastern Pipeline in Little Rock, Ark. on May 31. The buried line, which crossed the Arkansas River near the Clinton Presidential Center, was not in use at the time, but contained four million cubic feet of natural gas that exploded with such force that churning water boiled up high into the air across the span of the river. Eyewitness Tony Cassady, who lives nearby, said the gushing waters had settled back somewhat by the time he managed to snap the photo above.

While no one was injured, the blow out resulted in more than $1 million in damages, according to federal records. The cause has not been determined, but an incident report filed by Spectra in June noted that high rains had caused flooding that had washed away soil that once covered the pipeline on the river’s bank.

Aerial view of the explosion site of Spectra Energy's Nig Creek Pipeline in 2012. Photo: Transportation Safety Board of Canada

Aerial view of the explosion site of Spectra Energy’s Nig Creek Pipeline in 2012. Photo: Transportation Safety Board of Canada

Another vivid example of the power of out-of-control natural gas occurred June 28, 2012 at the Nig Creek pipeline in British Columbia, operated by Spectra’s wholly owned subsidiary Westcoast Energy. The 16-inch pipeline, which had been shut down that night, was filled with pressurized “sour gas” that exploded when the line ruptured, causing a fire and creating a large crater in a remote forest area in British Columbia. Sour gas contains significant amounts of hydrogen sulfide and is highly toxic.

No one was injured in the blast – the nearest town, population 58, was 25 miles away. The cause was later determined to be a crack in a pipe.

So far in 2015, Canada’s National Energy Board has fined Spectra Energy three times for a total of $122,300 – including $88,000 imposed in January after inspectors found violations with “the potential to significantly impact worker safety and infrastructure” at Spectra’s Dawson Creek Gas Plant, also in British Columbia.

Just last month, the board also ordered Spectra to fix “management system failures” at its Westcoast Energy gas processing plants and facilities in western Canada after inspectors uncovered 27 safety issues between April 1, 2014 and June 26, 2015.

“The board expects Westcoast to address safety concerns on a systemic basis,” says the July 14 safety order. “Based on recent violations described below, the board is not confident safety concerns are being addressed in this manner.”

Back in the U.S., Spectra owns or co-owns eight natural gas pipelines, including the 745-mile Gulfstream Natural Gas, which runs beneath the Gulf of Mexico from lower Mississippi and Alabama to Tampa Bay. All but two of those pipelines – Gulfstream and the 67-mile Big Sandy pipeline in eastern Kentucky – have reported at least one incident since 2006.

Spectra Energy's pipelines

Spectra Energy’s pipelines

In 2014, the U.S. pipeline administration investigated a frightening episode in Searsmont, Maine involving the Maritimes and Northeast Pipeline, a joint venture of Spectra, Emera and ExxonMobil. The 684-mile pipeline transports natural gas from offshore Nova Scotia to markets in the northeast U.S.

The event happened at a pipeline compressor station, which helps move gas through a pipeline by keeping it under sufficient pressure, shortly before midnight on Dec. 31, 2013. Neighbors told a Bangor Daily News reporter they heard a roaring noise that was so loud it caused nearby homes to shake and some residents to flee.


“It was absolutely the most terrifying experience I’ve ever had,” Susan Totman told the newspaper.

Federal pipeline regulators said the noise, which lasted more than a half-hour, was caused by the release of gas jetting from a valve in an emergency shutdown system that was unintentionally opened. About 70 million cubic yards of gas were released, says an agency report on the incident.

The pipeline operator was later found to have violated federal regulations by failing to timely inform them of the accident. Last month, on July 24, regulators imposed a $34,500 fine that company officials did not contest.

Other Spectra pipelines have had problems, too.

Agency records list three incidents in 2010 involving equipment failure and excavation damage along Spectra’s East Tennessee pipeline that caused $238,000 in property damage. In 2013, the company received a warning letter after inspectors found four probable safety violations.

Spectra’s Southeast Supply Header is a 286-mile pipeline that funnels natural gas through Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama to the Gulfstream pipeline and on to Florida. Records show that a construction-related equipment failure near Hazlehurst, Miss. in January 2010 caused $562,000 in property damage and led to $200,000 in safety violation fines.

But Spectra’s longest and most troubled pipeline is the Texas Eastern Transmission.

In 1989, Spectra and its Texas Eastern limited partnership paid a $15 million fine and entered into a consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl) contamination at numerous cites along the pipeline in 14 states.

Texas Eastern had used the banned substance and suspected carcinogen in its compressors as a fire retardant, and over time it had leaked into the pipeline system. The $500 million PCB cleanup cost included the assessment of 462 sites for contamination, installing 707 groundwater monitoring wells and removing and disposing of 600,000 tons of contaminated soil, the EPA said in a 2002 announcement that the cleanup had been completed.

Texas Eastern also paid Pennsylvania $218.6 million in penalties and costs to clean up 19 sites in that state where PCBs were dumped.

In 1994, a buried Texas Eastern pipeline in Edison, N.J. ruptured and ignited “sending flames several hundred feet in the air,” according to a National Transportation Safety Board report. Heat from the burning gas set fire to an apartment complex more than 100 yards away, destroying several buildings.

Dozens of people were injured and more than 100 families were left homeless, but there were no fatalities. Damage was estimated at $25 million. The probable cause of the rupture: mechanical damage to the pipe that created a crack that metal fatigue caused to grow to critical size.

Trump, Gimenez let off easy after breaking lobbying laws, critics say

By Francisco Alvarado, 

Donald Trump, right, and Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez

Donald Trump, right, and Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez

Donald Trump’s efforts to take over management of a public golf course is at the center of a recently concluded Miami-Dade ethics commission probe that has come under fire for not admonishing the billionaire developer and county Mayor Carlos Gimenez for breaking local lobbying laws.

Critics accuse Michael Muraswski, advocate for the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics & Public Trust, of giving a free pass to rich, powerful, and politically connected individuals who break the rules. Murawski’s role is to prosecute persons who break the county’s conflict of interest and ethics laws.

In Trump’s case, Murawski failed to present evidence to the ethics commission board at a June 17 meeting in which the advocate recommended a finding of no probable cause against the billionaire candidate for president and the mayor, said Eston “Dusty” Melton, a prominent county hall lobbyist.

Murawski also recommended the board dismiss a complaint against Trump’s environmental consultant Edward Russo despite concluding he did not register as a lobbyist for his client until Feb. 24, seven days after the ethics investigation was initiated.

Melton said Murawski similarly let celebrity soccer star David Beckham off the hook in an unrelated 2014 ethics case accusing him of illegally lobbying Gimenez and county commissioners to give him public waterfront land for a Major League Soccer stadium.

“I think it is clear that in certain cases, particularly complaints against high profile individuals, the findings and materials given to board members of the ethics commission are deeply and remarkably flawed,” Melton told Florida Bulldog. “As a consequence, some of the decisions made by the ethics commission are seriously embarrassing for those who care a lot about the rule of law.”

Miami-Dade’s lobbyist registration requirements are designed to allow the public to know who is trying to influence government decision makers. Principals and their representatives – consultants and lobbyists included – who seek to do business with local government must register with the county clerk prior to any interactions with public officials. Failure to do so is punishable by a fine of up to $500 or a temporary ban from county hall, a penalty that is rarely enforced.


The ethics commission opened a probe on Trump, Gimenez, and Russo based on complaints filed in February by Miami watchdog blogger Al Crespo. Crespo accused the Republican presidential contender and his consultant of not registering as lobbyists, and Gimenez of failing to inform them that they had to register.

Al Crespo

Al Crespo

Crespo, who operates the Crespogram Report,  alleged Murawski has purposely misrepresented portions of ethics complaints he and others have filed against public officials in an attempt to minimize their wrongdoing.

“Murawski has set himself up as the chief manipulator of the facts to reach the conclusion that he wants,” Crespo said.

Trump, who leads the Republican presidential field in some polls, owns the Trump National Doral golf club. He first broached the subject of taking over the county-owned Crandon Park Golf Course while playing there with Gimenez and Russo in October 2013.

In a June 2 interview, Russo told ethics investigators Trump was not keen on letting anyone know he was interested in taking over Crandon. He also stated that Trump and he began their full court press on Gimenez during and immediately following their golf game at the public golf course on Key Biscayne.

“Russo said that they were giving the mayor a gift,” says a summary of the interview. “They are lobbying him when they are the guys who should be lobbied. [Russo] and Trump wanted to do this anonymously.”

According to the investigative file, Gimenez, his then-chief-of-staff Lisa Martinez, and Miami-Dade Parks Department Director Jack Kardys met with Russo on Jan. 28, 2014 to continue discussions on what Trump had to do to submit a proposal.

Using Trump National Doral letterhead, Trump sent a signed pitch letter to Gimenez about a month later. The proposal: Trump would spend $10 million of his own money to renovate Crandon in exchange for allowing his company to lease the golf course for $1 a year.

Over the next two months, emails from Kardys to his subordinates indicate that Gimenez was anxious to send Trump a reply. On March 31, the parks director informed his deputy, George Navarrete, that the “mayor wants Trump letter today – see me first thing.”

But no reply was drafted by April 12, 2014 when Kardys emailed Navarrete again to express his concern. “I hope this is moving because the mayor will be furious if Trump calls him for a lack of response – please advise,” Kardys wrote.


Three days later, Gimenez signed an official letter to Trump explaining how he could submit an unsolicited proposal and that Kardys would be his point of contact.

Trump’s formal proposal arrived in August, along with deposit check for $25,000 from Trump Golf Acquisitions LLC.

Ten months had elapsed since the day Trump and Russo met Gimenez on the golf course, but neither Trump nor Russo registered to lobby the mayor, records show. Nor did Gimenez ever instruct Trump or Russo to register, Crepo’s complaint alleged.

Nevertheless, in his June 5, 2015 memo Murawski recommended the ethics commission find no probable cause against the mayor or Trump. He also recommended Russo be given a letter of instruction because Trump’s consultant insisted he was unaware of the county’s lobbyist registration requirements.

The ethics commission considered the matter at a closed-door session on June 18. Audio of that meeting shows Murawski told commissioners Trump’s only dialogue with the mayor was their informal talk at Crandon in October 2013, and that Gimenez quickly stopped being involved. He also argued that no formal bidding process was ever initiated that would have required Trump to register, or required Gimenez to tell him he had to register.

“The conclusion is that [Trump] wasn’t a lobbyist,” Murawski told the board. “We covered this in the David Beckham case when Mr. Beckham met with the mayor and some commissioners initially to discuss his proposal of having a soccer stadium here in Miami-Dade County. We concluded in that case that there is a certain ‘meet and greet’ period where you can generally discuss ideas but there is nothing concrete in the pipeline; nothing to be voted on.”

Lobbyist Melton, a former Miami Herald reporter, said he was so stunned by Murawski’s actions after hearing the audio that he felt compelled to address the advocate’s “botched analysis” at the July 8 ethics commission meeting.

Melton told commissioners that Murawski had failed to inform them how Trump and Gimenez had exchanged official correspondence in March and April about how to draft an unsolicited proposal, action that Melton said constitutes lobbying.

“Mr. Murawski framed his entire recommendation regarding Trump around the golf game only,” Melton told the board. “Mr. Murawski entirely ignored Trump’s personal, ongoing, formal, written lobbying activities that followed, many months after the golf game.”

In a brief phone interview with the Florida Bulldog, Murawski dismissed Melton’s criticisms. “He cherry-picked one or two lines and took what I said out of context,” he said. “I give very little credit to what he said.”

Murawski declined further comment, saying he will address Melton’s accusations at next month’s ethics commission meeting.

Marcia Narine is a law professor at St. Thomas University who has served on the ethics commission board for about a year. She said she does not believe Murawski hid information, and says the ethics commission did not go easy on Gimenez and Trump.
“It can appear that this was glossed over because the person is a presidential candidate,” Narine said. “That is not the case at all. I think the commission acts in good faith to do the job the public expects us to do.”

Miami attorney and ethics commission chairman Nelson Bellido also denied the board is making bad decisions, noting its members will take a “second look” at the Trump-Gimenez case at its Wednesday, Aug. 12 meeting.

“We are absolutely not a rubber stamp,” Bellido said. “We are there to listen to all sides. I don’t come in with any bias or political bent. I take the job very seriously.”

Billionaire car dealer Braman also gives big to Lopez-Cantera’s Senate run

By Francisco Alvarado, 

Norman Braman, left and Carlos Lopez-Cantera

Norman Braman, left and Carlos Lopez-Cantera

Having raised $5 million for Marco Rubio’s presidential aspirations, billionaire automobile dealer Norman Braman is also betting big money on another Miami Republican who is seeking to succeed Rubio in the U.S. Senate in 2016.

In mid-May, Braman gave $100,000 to a super political action committee set up for Florida Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, who officially announced his federal campaign last month. The six-figure sum was the largest single donation to Reform Washington, which raised a total of $744,642 during the first six months of 2015, according to a recent campaign finance report. Super Pacs are allowed to raise unlimited funds from corporations, labor unions and the rich.

Another Lopez-Cantera affiliated PAC, Reform Washington Leadership, has collected $143,049, but none from Braman.

Lopez-Cantera, who is also close friends with Rubio, will go up against U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis of Ponte Vedra Beach and first-time candidate and defense contractor Todd Wilcox of Orlando, in the 2016 Republican primary.

Braman did not return a phone message or an email seeking comment, but the politically influential civic activist has long counted on Lopez-Cantera as an ally.

In 2010, Lopez-Cantera — at the time a state representative who ascended to house majority leader — co-chaired a recall committee against then-Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez organized and funded by Braman.

In March 2011, after the Braman-led ouster of Alvarez was successful, Lopez-Cantera co-sponsored a bill that would have allowed Miami-Dade’s legislative delegation to place referendum questions directly on the county ballot, without receiving commission approval or collecting petition signatures as is now required. Braman told the Miami Herald he supported the measure, citing the high cost of gathering petition signatures and getting out the vote. The legislation ultimately failed to reach the House floor.

As Lopez-Cantera’s profile grew, so did Braman’s political contributions to him. In 2008, Braman, his wife, and six of his corporations gave a combined $4,000 to Lopez-Cantera’s reelection campaign for state house. Two years later, the Bramans bundled $6,500 for another campaign to re-elect Lopez-Cantera. Both times, he ran unopposed.

In 2012, Braman, his companies and his wife poured $35,000 into Lopez-Cantera’s successful campaign for Miami-Dade Property Appraiser, including $30,000 to Citizens for Lower Property Taxes, a PAC chaired by the Cuban-American politico’s sister, Monica Cantera-Serralta.

In 2010, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office investigated allegations that Lopez-Cantera’s campaign paid $37,500 to a bogus political consulting firm owned by Cantera-Serralta and her husband Gadyace Serralta during two of his re-election efforts. According to a close out memo issued a year later, prosecutors determined no crime was committed.

“While it may not look good to campaign contributors or to the general public that a company wholly held by the candidate’s sister and brother-in-law made a profit on the campaign,” wrote assistant state attorney Howard Rosen. “Actual work was done by them, and there is nothing to preclude them from profiting from their work.”

Last February, after serving nearly two years as Miami-Dade property appraiser, Lopez-Cantera was selected by Gov. Rick Scott as his lieutenant governor, replacing the scandal plagued Jennifer Carroll. Braman was among the invited guests at Lopez-Cantera’s swearing-in ceremony in Tallahassee.

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

By Francisco Alvarado, 

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.


“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.


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, 

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, 

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.


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.


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, 

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.


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, 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 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.

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