Lauren’s Kids funnels $3.1 million to politically connected public relations firm

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Tallahassee’s Sachs Media Group produced this billboard in 2014.

A nonprofit run by Broward State Sen. Lauren Book and lavished with millions of dollars in state handouts by lawmakers paid a Tallahassee public relations firm with considerable political clout $3.1 million between 2012 and 2015.

The payments by Lauren’s Kids to Sachs Media Group accounted for 28 percent of the charity’s $10.8 million in expenses, according to Lauren’s Kids most recent available tax returns. In the same period, the Florida Legislature awarded Lauren’s Kids – which employs Sen. Book as its $135,000-a-year chief executive and counts powerful lobbyist Ron Book, her father, as its chairman – $9.6 million in grants.

The nonprofit’s payouts to Sachs Media for 2016 are not publicly available. A spokeswoman for Lauren’s Kids did not respond to requests to view that information.

Florida Bulldog reported last week that Sen. Book, using a loophole in state conflict-of-interest rules, voted last month to approve a state appropriations bill that included $1.5 million for Lauren’s Kids.

Millions of taxpayer dollars flowed through the nonprofit to Sachs Media as it both promoted Lauren’s Kids and cultivated Sen. Book’s public persona as a survivor of child sex abuse. Critics say the domination of Lauren’s Kids by the senator and her lobbyist-father raises concerns that the work Sachs Media does is more about making her look good, not raising awareness about unreported cases of child sex abuse.

“There is nothing wrong with an individual promoting that they have done good work,” said Daniel Borochoff, founder of Chicago-based CharityWatch. “However, it would appear the father can pull some weight to push the organization in a direction that would be beneficial for the daughter. It is more likely for that to happen more so than helping kids.”

If that’s the case, then the Books and Sachs Media are abusing the public’s trust, Borochoff added. “Nonprofit money is supposed to be used for a public benefit and not to enhance the aspirations of the charity’s officers,” Borochoff said. “But sometimes there is an overlap and it can become a side effect for someone running a charity.”

‘Proud of our work’

Sachs Media founder and chief executive Ron Sachs did not return two phone messages seeking response to a list of detailed questions emailed to him on June 12. Instead, Sachs Media president Michelle Ubben provided Florida Bulldog with a written statement noting that the firm is “not currently engaged by Lauren’s Kids.”

“We are particularly proud of our work to help the Lauren’s Kids foundation develop sexual abuse prevention curricula for grades K-12, and to raise awareness of the signs of child abuse and public reporting requirements,” Ubben’s statement read. She referred specific questions about the firm’s work with Lauren’s Kids to the nonprofit’s spokeswoman and former Sachs Media account executive Claire VanSusteren.

Ron Sachs

“We have worked with Sachs in the past to raise awareness about child sexual abuse,” VanSusteren said in an emailed statement. “[Sachs] has, over the course of several years, completed communications work and engaged a variety of subcontractors related to deliverables for state contracts.”

A former news reporter and editor who did stints as spokesman for Florida governors Reubin Askew and Lawton Chiles, Ron Sachs founded his company in 1996, specializing in corporate branding, marketing and crisis management. His early victories included a 1998 campaign to inform voters on amendments proposed by the Constitution Revision Commission and helping repeal an automatic 20 percent phone rate hike tacked onto a bill in 2003.

Six years later, Sachs landed more than $130,000 worth of work from the Associated Industries of Florida, according to a 2011 Florida Trend article. The same year, Sachs Media was retained by an anonymous group of oil and gas producers called Florida Energy Associates to do a campaign promoting the removal of the prohibition on drilling in the state’s offshore waters.

Sachs Media has also counted the Florida Chamber of Commerce among its clients, producing a web-based public affairs program called “The Bottom Line.”  Another program, “Florida Newsmakers,” features one-on-one interviews with top state bureaucrats answering softball questions. According to an online database of state contracts, Sachs Media has also been awarded small and large media jobs by various state agencies.

For instance, the Florida Lottery paid Sachs Media $150,000 in February 2013 for an educational multimedia campaign. A year later, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs paid Sachs Media $3,720 for table throws stamped with the department’s emblem. The Department of Environmental Protection awarded the firm a $316,250 contract in 2014 to produce a public awareness campaign about the importance of sea turtle nesting beaches in Florida’s Panhandle.

Sachs media faced criticism

Sachs Media has faced criticism over its business practices in recent years. In 2014, the firm dropped a lawsuit it had filed against the family of a paralyzed Broward County man after a public outcry over Sachs Media’s heavy-handed tactics against its former client, who was left brain damaged by the car of a speeding Broward County sheriff’s deputy. Sachs had claimed Eric Brody’s relatives owed the firm $375,000 for four years of public relations and media outreach services.

A year later, a state audit of a $296,105 Sachs Media contract with the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs found that the agreement did not clearly establish the tasks to be performed by the firm, did not contain documentation requirements, did not sufficiently identify the activities or services to be provided and included three amendments for an additional $135,421.

“In general, the agreement had no scope of work or deliverable issues,” the audit states. “The amendments did not fall within the original scope of work and did not clearly establish the tasks the provider was required to perform.” (Ubben did not comment on the dropping of the lawsuit and on the audit’s findings.)

According to Sachs Media’s website, the firm was retained by Lauren’s Kids in 2007, the year the nonprofit was founded. “Lauren’s Kids engaged our firm to conceptualize and bring to life a breakthrough strategy that would get people aware, educated, and mobilized to prevent this dark, societal secret – child sexual abuse,” a statement on the website reads. “We branded the Lauren’s Kids Foundation and generated extensive, multi-year media coverage – including the cover of Newsweek – around an annual 1,500-mile walk for awareness throughout Florida.”

In addition, Sen. Book and her cause have been featured by Nancy Grace, USA Today, Lisa Ling, Jane Velez-Mitchell and various local media outlets due to Sachs Media’s public relations work, the website states.

Sachs Media was also involved in helping Sen. Book market and promote her autobiography “It’s OK to Tell” and her annual walk from Key West to Tallahassee, as well as producing billboards, public service announcements and a curriculum for grades K-12 about child sex abuse prevention. The curriculum features web-based video lessons starring Sen. Book and reading materials that recount how she was sexually abused by her nanny during her teen years.

In 2015, Sachs Media conducted an online survey for Lauren’s Kids that found more than one-third of female respondents and one-fifth of male respondents had admitted to being sexually abused as children. However, the accuracy of the online survey, which national polling experts dismiss as being unreliable and inaccurate, could not be verified because Sachs Media declined to provide its methodology and backup data to Florida Bulldog.

The payments

Here’s the breakdown of Lauren’s Kids payments to Sachs Media as detailed in the nonprofits tax returns:

  • $670,032 for “public relations.” That accounted or 33 percent of Lauren’s Kids’ $2 million in expenses that year.
  • $957,977 for “program support,” or 63 percent of Lauren’s Kids $1.5 million in expenses.
  • $579,772, or 20 percent of expenses.
  • $966,100 for programming support. Sachs subcontractor, The POD Advertising, was paid $349,800, with both accounting for 28 percent of Lauren’s Kids expenses that year.

The owner of a Miami-based public relations firm who requested anonymity said the amount of money Lauren’s Kids has paid Sachs Media is shocking. “It’s pretty outrageous that a PR firm is billing that much to a nonprofit,” the owner said. “Usually, you are taking on charities on a pro-bono basis or providing them with a significant discount.”

Claire VanSusteren

Sen. Book, a Plantation Democrat, and Ron Book did not respond to requests for comment. However, Lauren’s Kids spokeswoman VanSusteren defended the work performed by Sachs Media, noting the campaigns have taught Floridians the importance of openly discussing child sex crimes.

“We have received countless calls and messages from parents, educators and law enforcement officers sharing stories of children coming forward and disclosing abuse thanks to our curriculum program,” she said. “At the end of the day, nothing is more important than protecting childhood. That’s what it’s all about.”

For example, she said, Sachs managed content production and communications related to a Lauren’s Kids public awareness campaign called “Don’t Miss the Signs” developed in partnership with the Florida Department of Children and Families.

She claimed that reports of abuse to the DCF hotline rose by 30 percent during the campaign and that Lauren’s Kids has received positive feedback from numerous teachers and police officers about the “Safer, Smarter” curriculum Sachs Media produced. In her statement to Florida Bulldog, VanSusteren included testimonials from unidentified teachers and guidance counselors.

One was from a self-described educator at James M. Marlowe Elementary School in New Port Richey who said, “I love the fact that it’s simple and easy to implement. I love the fact that there isn’t a lot of prep time needed for the lessons.”

Yet, the testimonial said nothing about the curriculum’s effectiveness in preventing child sex abuse.

Using ethics loophole, Sen. Lauren Book votes to give her nonprofit $1.5 million

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Sen. Lauren Book’s page on Florida Senate web site.

Broward State Sen. Lauren Book voted “yes” last month to approve a state appropriations bill that included $1.5 million for Lauren’s Kids, the nonprofit she founded and leads as its $135,000-a-year chief executive officer.

A gaping loophole in Florida Senate ethics rules allowed Book to cast her vote despite her apparent conflict of interest. The same loophole also meant she didn’t have to disclose her conflict publicly.

Senators are forbidden by ethics rules from voting “on any matter” in which they or an immediate family member would privately gain – except when it comes to votes on the annual General Appropriations Act. Abstaining senators must also disclose the nature of their interest in the matter, according to the 335-page Florida Senate Rules and Manual.

“Legislators are allowed to vote on issues that may benefit their profession,” said Ben Wilcox, research director for the nonpartisan watchdog Integrity Florida. “But it becomes questionable when it is a direct appropriation to an entity that a legislator controls and that would directly benefit that legislator.”

Lauren’s Kids, whose chairman is prominent lobbyist Ron Book, the senator’s father, has in a just few years become one of the Florida Legislature’s most favored private charities. Since 2012, Lauren’s Kids has bagged more than $10 million in taxpayer-funded handouts.

Gov. Rick Scott went along with the latest $1.5 million appropriation for Lauren’s Kids while approving Florida’s $83 billion 2017-18 budget earlier this month.

How that appropriation came to be is a story itself. Lauren’s Kids only asked for $1 million.

Where did extra $500,000 come from?

But more than six weeks after the Florida legislative session ended, nobody is answering questions about how Lauren’s Kids snagged that additional $500,000. Not Sen. Book. Not Ron Book. Not Sen. Bill Montford, the Tallahassee Democrat who sits on the education appropriations subcommittee and sponsored a funding request for $1 million on the nonprofit’s behalf on Feb. 22. And not Rep. Jeanette Nunez, R-Kendall, who sponsored the bill in the House. Each did not respond to detailed requests for comment.

Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee and Rep. Jeannette Nunez sponsored funding requests for Lauren’s Kids in the state Senate and House

Lauren’s Kids spokeswoman Claire VanSusteren, however, provided a written statement on June 12 summarizing how Lauren’s Kids intends to use the funds and defending the organization’s mission to increase reporting of child sexabuse incidents.

“There is no investment greater than in our children’s safety, and research shows that school-based education is an extremely effective vehicle for prevention and early intervention,” the statement read. “Lauren’s Kids is proud to partner with Florida educators to help arm students with knowledge about personal safety and accessing help.”

VanSusteren did not respond to a follow-up list of questions emailed on June 15 that again requested an explanation of how Lauren’s Kids’ funding request got bumped up from $1 million to $1.5 million between April 27 and May 8. That’s when House and Senate members went into conference committees to hash out the final budget bill. Sen. Book was a conferee for the appropriations conference committee on health care and human services. Montford was a conferee on the committee for education.

Wilcox said Sen. Book should be forthcoming about the additional $500,000 Lauren’s Kids received. “At the very least, she should be as transparent as possible on how that funding was decided,” he said. “It already doesn’t look good to the public given it is a dicey relationship for her in the first place as a sitting legislator who is also a recipient of taxpayer dollars.”

Lauren Book, 32, is a freshman legislator from Plantation. She assumed office just seven months ago after running unopposed and has quickly ascended the state’s political ranks. She is the Democratic Leader Pro Tempore and chairwoman of the Senate environmental preservation and conservation committee. She also sits on the appropriations, health policy and rules committees. Her father’s clients contributed significantly to her campaign and political action committee.

In March, Sen. Book told Florida Bulldog she was advised by Senate counsel “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, who was sexually abused by her nanny in her early teens, said she resigned from the board of directors of the foundation that raises money for Lauren’s Kids and that her salary was restructured to “ensure that no public dollars were used to compensate me for my work.”

At the time, Sen. Book said the Florida Department of Education requested that the Legislature provide $1 million in funding for Lauren’s Kids to continue its “Safer, Smarter” curriculum, a program that teaches students, teachers and parents how to spot signs of child sex abuse and the importance of reporting sex crimes against children.

Lobbyist Ron Book, the senator’s father. Photo from the documentary “Untouchable” by David Feige

The curriculum is made available to children at all grade levels in public and charter schools in all 67 Florida counties, but school districts are not required to teach it. For instance, Indian River County Public Schools and Orange County Public Schools do not use the “Safer, Smarter” curriculum, according to spokespersons for both districts. Miami-Dade Public Schools, the largest school district in the state, uses “Safer, Smarter” at only 80 out of 392 schools, said spokesman John Schuster.

“The curriculum is implemented as classroom guidance lessons facilitated by the school counselor or school social worker,” Schuster said. “The counseling professionals choose the classes where the students will receive the curriculum.”

Data lacking on curriculum results

Schuster said Miami-Dade Public Schools does not track or have any data confirming that the “Safer, Smarter” curriculum has resulted in the reporting of child sex-abuse incidents that would otherwise go undetected. “These reports are made directly to the Department of Children and Families and are anonymous,” he said. “We have no access to this reporting information.”

In VanSusteren’s June 12 statement, she defended Lauren’s Kids work by citing an unverified and questionable  2015 poll the organization commissioned that concluded one in three girls and one in five boys will be victims of sexual abuse by the time they graduate 12th grade. By applying those statistics to the overall public schools student population in Florida, there are “at least 540,000 child victims currently enrolled Florida’s K-12 schools,” the statement read.

VanSusteren insisted 95 percent of child sex abuse is preventable through education and awareness, and that the “Safer, Smarter” curriculum works. “Students who receive education about personal safety and accessing help in unsafe situations are three times more likely to speak up if they are being harmed,” VanSusteren said. “The funds allocated to Lauren’s Kids during fiscal year 2017-2018 will be used to continue our work to bring life-saving resources to Florida classrooms – as recommended in the Department of Education budget, as well as the Governor’s budget.”

However, the Florida Department of Education did not make the funding request for the curriculum, said department press secretary Audrey Walden. She explained the Legislature and the governor must first approve the funding and the department then disperses the funds to Lauren’s Kids and other nonprofit groups that get state money. Organizations must apply to the department and provide a breakdown on how the funds will be spent.

In its March 31 application, Lauren’s Kids stated it would spend $800,000 to print and distribute educational materials and maintain two websites associated with the “Safer, Smarter” curriculum; $100,000 to produce a digital conference; and two separate $50,000 expenditures for an evaluation survey, online training modules for teachers and principals and an educational fair.

“Please note that the department does not require schools to use the curriculum referenced,” Walden said. “It is implemented in schools at the discretion of each school district.”

According to an online legislative database used to track the Lauren’s Kids appropriation, Sen. Montford sponsored a $1 million funding request the same day that Kelly Mallette, governmental affairs director for Ronald L. Book P.A., lobbied the subcommittee on behalf of Lauren’s Kids and three other nonprofits the firm represents.

Montford, who is also the chief executive of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, has sponsored previous funding requests for Lauren’s Kids. He sits on the appropriations, health policy and rules committees alongside Sen. Book.

According to Montford’s 2016 campaign finance reports, Ron Book, his wife Patricia and his law firm each gave $1,000 to the senator’s re-election effort. Ronald L. Book P.A. also contributed $2,500 in 2014 to a now-defunct political action committee chaired by Montford.

On the House side, the re-election campaign of Rep. Nunez, who sponsored a $1 million funding bill on behalf of Lauren’s Kids, also got $1,000 contributions from Ron Book, his wife and his law firm. Montford and Nunez did not respond to four messages left with their legislative assistants the week of the June 5-9 special session.

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.

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