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

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

State Sen. Lauren Book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conflict of interest?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DMV passes the buck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

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

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

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

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

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

“No. I have met with the Counsel of the Senate and have been advised that it is proper that I do not abstain on these matters unless the funding directly inures to my benefit, which it will not,” Sen. Book said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ron Book as landlord

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

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

Ron Book declined to comment.

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

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

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

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

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

Conflict questions loom

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

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

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

Integrity Florida Research Director Ben Wilcox

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

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

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

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

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

Clients and contributions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

Independent special districts: Where lobbyists ride free and the public is in the dark

 

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org  

Florida's sprawling water management districts spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year, but do not require lobbyists to register. Photo: Florida Department of Environmental Protection

Florida’s sprawling water management districts spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year, but do not require lobbyists to register. Photo: Florida Department of Environmental Protection

Nearly 1,000 special-purpose governments across Florida that raise and spend billions of dollars in public funds every year do not require lobbyists who appear before them to register, pay fees or disclose any information about themselves or their clients.

Lobbyist registration and disclosure have been mandatory for years in Tallahassee and in many city and county halls across the state, where lawmakers found it necessary to preserve the integrity of the decision-making process. Violators can be fined and barred from lobbying for up to two years.

But Florida’s independent special districts are a separate class of government – a hodgepodge of obscure taxing and other authorities that, with few exceptions, offer the public no information about lobbyists or what they’re up to at their agencies.

BrowardBulldog.org, supported by a grant from the Washington-based Fund for Investigative Journalism, spent months documenting that sweeping lack of government accountability; a free ride enjoyed by lobbyists at independent special districts around Florida with the power to tax, assess fees and/or sell low-interest bonds to finance government spending.

“The issue is transparency: who is getting the benefit of governmental largess,” said Frank S. Palen, a West Palm Beach attorney who specializes in government law and special districts.  “If people don’t have knowledge it undermines legitimacy, but as a practical matter it would depend on the scale of the entities.”

Independent special districts have been around for 100 years. The oldest, the Hastings Drainage District in Putnam and St. Johns counties, was created July 1, 1913, according to Jack Gaskins Jr., who runs the state’s Special District Information Program.

Eric Draper, executive director Audubon of Florida

Eric Draper, executive director Audubon of Florida

Today, these agencies offer dozens of specialized governmental services – from water management, mosquito control and community development to public hospitals, children’s services, ports and airports.

Hundreds of districts, like the Choctawhatchee River Soil and Water Conservation District in Florida’s Panhandle, are so small they’re unlikely to see lobbyists looking to influence policy or a contract award.

MANY DISTRICTS SPEND BIG

But many independent districts with big money to spend, like the $622.2 million South Florida Water Management District, regularly encounter lobbyists.  The state’s largest water district collects property taxes in 16 counties and is run by a governing board appointed by the governor and dominated by real estate, agribusiness and development interests.

The environmental group Audubon Florida sees a problem in the lack of lobbyist registration at government agencies like the South Florida Water Management District.

“There are consultants to the sugar industry who are spending time with and influencing the thinking of South Florida Water Management District governing board members and they should be registered as lobbyists,” said Audubon Executive Director Eric Draper. “We see them, but it’s too shadowy to know exactly what they’re doing.”

Florida’s five water management districts levied $480 million in property taxes statewide in 2012, yet none register lobbyists. Draper said the Legislature should adopt statewide lobbying rules for all special taxing districts.

“We should know who is lobbying, who is being paid to lobby and who they are lobbying,” Draper said.

Florida Department of Revenue data obtained in response to a public records request identified 93 independent special districts with annual budgets of more than $10 million in 2012. chart2

BrowardBulldog.org surveyed dozens of independent districts, including the 38 largest with budgets in excess of $50 million. Only three districts reported having some form of lobbyist regulation; another prohibits lobbying in its bylaws. The rest, with cumulative annual spending of $7.1 billion, said they do not require lobbyists to register.

A half-dozen attorneys and officials who represent or work for special districts in Florida, including Palen, said they were aware of no other independent districts that register lobbyists.

Integrity Florida, the Tallahassee-based nonprofit and nonpartisan government watchdog, said change is needed to ensure accountability.

“If you’re spending taxpayer money and there’s a lobbyist involved in the spending of that money then there should be at least some basic lobbyist disclosure,” said Integrity Florida Research Director Ben Wilcox. “This situation has never really come up and been discussed that I can remember.”

O’Neal Bardin Jr. is president of the Florida Association of Special Districts and is also executive director of the $28 million Northern Palm Beach Improvement District. He said registration would help those who work at special districts better understand those who may approach them.

“Are they trying to persuade me of a position based on their remuneration or employment? It’s a matter of understanding who you are talking to,” said Bardin. “It seems based on a sense of uniformity that it would make sense that we do the same thing about lobbyists as the county or the city or the school board does. It would certainly further transparency.”

Special districts are independent or dependent. Dependents, which include ubiquitous community redevelopment agencies (CRAs), are vassals of municipalities and typically follow their rules regarding lobbyist registration.

ANTI-CORRUPTION LAWS DON’T EXTEND TO SPECIAL DISTRICTS

There are 992 active independent special districts, according to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity’s special districts database. They outnumber Florida’s counties, cities, towns and villages better than two to one yet operate largely in the shadows of their better-known municipal counterparts.

The Uniform Special District Accountability Act of 1989 obliges special districts to comply with many of the same accountability standards that apply to state and local governments, like open meetings and public records. But state anti-corruption laws requiring lobbyists before the Legislature and the Executive Branch to annually register, pay fees and disclose their clients and compensation don’t extend to special districts.

“I haven’t heard why the Legislature didn’t include special districts,” said Bardin. “But they could easily have overlooked it…we’re not the first group that comes to mind when you talk about governments.”

“You can’t think of everything,” said attorney Palen.

Florida law also does not require counties, cities and other municipalities to enact lobbyist registration rules, although many have. In jurisdictions with no lobbying rules, like rural Sumter and Highlands counties, that means dependent districts don’t register lobbyists either. chart1

Florida has authorized 136 independent districts, many run by unelected boards, to impose ad valorem taxes on homeowners and businesses in one or more counties, according to the Department of Revenue data. Not all exercise that power, but in 2011 – the most recent year for which complete statistics are available – those that did levied more than $1.82 billion in property taxes.

Seven districts account for half of that total. They are: the South Florida, Southwest Florida and St. John’s River water management districts; the North Broward Hospital District, also known as Broward Health; the Health Care District of Palm Beach; the Children’s Services Council of Palm Beach and The Children’s Trust in Miami-Dade.

Their cumulative 2012 property tax bite: $936,700,000.

The Children’s Trust is the only one of the seven with a registration requirement. It doesn’t handle the task itself; rather, it voluntarily follows the county’s rules and advises lobbyists to register there, President and Chief Executive Charles Auslander said in an email.

ONLY TWO DISTRICTS REGISTER LOBBYISTS

Only two districts in the state register lobbyists themselves: the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, which runs Orlando International Airport, and the South Broward Hospital District, also known as Memorial Healthcare.

The information they collect and its accessibility to the public varies.

For example, Greater Orlando requires lobbyists to file annual expenditure reports detailing how much they spent on entertainment, research, advertising, travel, hotels and the like. South Broward does not. Also, Greater Orlando posts lobbyist information online; South Broward does not.

The Broward’s Children’s Services Council, with 2012 revenues of $59.5 million, prohibits lobbying in its bylaws.

Smaller districts, which provide services such as lighting, drainage, fire protection and community development, have budgets that typically run between $750,000 and $2 million a year, according to special districts association president Bardin. Many of those entities, like the Choctawhatchee River Soil and Water Conservation District in Defuniak Springs, had budgets of $50,00 or less in 2012.

Lobbyists generally have little interest in those small-money districts.

“Someone is not going to hire a lobbyist for a $10,000 janitorial contract,” said Bardin, whose association represents about 200 mostly small special districts.

Yet a small district with a contract worth a million dollars a year is another matter.

LOBBYISTS AND LAWN MOWERS

The obscure Capital Regional Community Development District (CDD) raises revenue through assessments to operate and maintain several planned communities in Tallahassee. Several years ago, it bid out a three-year lawn-mowing contract worth $3 million.

“That’s the only time I was approached by a lobbyist,” said David Ramba, a lawyer and lobbyist for the special districts association who also chairs the Capital Region CDD.

Smaller districts with large public works projects are also attractive to lobbyists.

Frank S. Palen, West Palm Beach attorney who specializes in government law and special districts

Frank S. Palen, West Palm Beach attorney who specializes in government law and special districts

The $12 million Lake Worth Drainage District has for several years been exploring the establishment of a regional water utility to address southeast Florida’s future drinking water supplies, said Palen. It would involve a re-plumbing of much of western Palm Beach County to make drainage flow to the south to replenish aquifers in Broward and Miami-Dade.

“The project may involve a $1 billion investment in infrastructure, land acquisition, etc.,” said Palen. “It should attract a lot of interest.”

Community development districts, like Capital Regional, assess fees on homeowner’s lots and have issued billions of dollars in low-interest municipal bonds to pay for local roads and other infrastructure. They account for more than half of Florida’s independent special districts.

During the build-out phase, developers run the CDD’s governing board. Later, homeowners take control.

Miami Lakes investment advisor Richard Lehmann publishes the Florida Community Development District Report. He said he doesn’t see the lack of lobbyist registration at CDDs as a problem.

“Developers run things as if they were paying the money themselves,” said Lehmann. “For homeowners, it’s money that’s coming out of their assessments and therefore it’s not like a government spending other people’s money.”

PURITY IN PURCHASING

Janet Tutt is the district manager of The Villages, the fast-growing retirement community about 20 miles south of Ocala. The Villages is comprised of 13 CDDs and one dependent utility district in Sumter County that work together via inter-local agreements.

“We have $250 million in budgets,” said Tutt. “Some of our contracts are quite large.”The Villages has no lobbyist registration, but discourages lobbying “as a matter of custom,” according to Tutt. “The purchasing process is only as good as how pure it’s kept.”

Purity is a word not necessarily associated with special districts.

In 2012, Gov. Rick Scott ordered a thorough review of Florida’s 1,600 special districts with an eye toward finding efficiencies and increasing accountability.

“We’re still working on it,” said Scott’s press secretary, Jackie Schutz.

In 2011, BrowardBulldog.org reported about the South Florida Water Management District’s $1.5 million purchase in 2007 of 15 large electric pumps that quickly failed, and how the company that sold the pumps was refusing to honor its warranty. At the time of the sale the company had an undisclosed inside connection: its lawyer/lobbyist was vice chairman of the district’s nine-member governing board. The lack of lobbyist registration served to veil that relationship.

Other special districts in the news:

  • The billion-dollar North Broward Hospital District, which has a long reputation for political favoritism and a lack of transparency in contracting, is the focus of an ongoing federal anti-kickback inquiry that’s examining allegations of bogus Medicare and Medicaid claims.
  • Prosecutors in Orange County are investigating two board members of the troubled Orlando Orange County Expressway Authority (OOCEA), which collects hundreds of millions of dollars in tolls, for possible Sunshine law violations regarding their alleged efforts to oust the authority’s former director, according to the Orlando Sentinel. In 2007, an authority contractor was indicted for bribery after he gave $2,600 in theme-park tickets to OOCEA’s chairman in hopes of keeping his contract.
  • The Lee County Mosquito Control District, with a $22 million annual budget, has a bug-killing air force and its own airport. It’s been criticized for overspending. In 2012, then-Republican Sen. Mike Bennett called it “truly a showcase of out-of-control special taxing districts,” according to the Fort Myers News Press.

None of those districts has lobbyist registration. Yet each pays lobbyists to influence matters of policy or procurement in Tallahassee, where they must register.

COSTS TO REGISTER LOBBYISTS PROHIBITIVE?

Many other independents pay lobbyists, too, including smaller districts where the cost of registering lobbyists is considered prohibitive.

Terry E. Lewis is a Palm Beach lawyer and lobbyist. He represents a dozen special districts, including independents like the Port of Palm Beach.

“For the South Florida Water Management District, maintaining a lobbyist list would be a blip on their financial radar screen…On the other hand, I’ve worked with some special districts that literally have one employee and a budget of $25,000. So you’ve kind of got the disparity complaint, that it’s a financial burden,” Lewis said.

Broward County confronted the cost problem two years ago during a rewrite of its ethics ordinance. It was decided then to hold down expenses by confining its monitoring and enforcement of lobbyist registration requirements to the county and all municipalities. Special districts were left out.

“It became too expensive to monitor others,” said County Commissioner Lois Wexler. “This is something that should be addressed by the Legislature.”

In the meantime, one independent district in Broward surveyed for this article, the Downtown Development Authority of Fort Lauderdale, has decided to change.

“Your question intrigued me, so I talked with counsel and we will be starting a registration system,” said Executive Director Chris Wren, whose agency is spearheading development of a $142 million streetcar system called The Wave. “We will post the information online.”

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