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.

Florida’s coming war on collective bargaining for state employees

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

State Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami

State Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami

When Miami state Rep. Carlos Trujillo was interviewed on Spanish language radio station Actualidad 1020 he boldly proclaimed that Republicans will ask voters in 2018 to eliminate collective bargaining for state employees from the Florida Constitution.

“It is going to be a nuclear war between the government, the unions, the Republicans and the Democrats,” Trujillo said on the air Sept. 30. “That war is coming.”

Trujillo said a proposed amendment to do away with collective bargaining could be among the proposed constitutional changes that the Constitutional Revision Commission, a 28-member group selected by state elected and judicial officials that convenes every 10 years, will consider in 2017. Possible changes would then be placed on the 2018 ballot.

His comments are a strong indication that the revision commission will be stacked with ultraconservative appointees who are going to try to push through amendments that are not in the best interests of state residents, say union leaders and a Democratic legislator who spoke to FloridaBulldog.org.

“I don’t think it’s bluster,” said state Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez (D-Miami). “I think [Trujillo] is totally serious given how extreme the House Republican leadership has been on issues affecting working families.”

“We are not taking [Trujillo’s] comments lightly at all,” added Andy Madtes, executive director of AFSCME Florida, which represents 15,000 government employees. “We are ready to activate thousands of union members to protect their rights. He made the declaration about going to war.”

In a Dec. 21 interview, Trujillo downplayed his on-the-air comments. “I definitely think it is being blown out of proportion,” Trujillo said. “I don’t sit on the Constitutional Revision Commission and I don’t select the people who sit on it.”

CONSTITUTIONAL REVISION COMMISSION

However, Gov. Rick Scott, incoming Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli — all Republicans — get to appoint 24 of the 28 commission members. Scott, Negron and Crisafulli can select anyone to serve on the commission, including legislators. Scott also gets to pick the chairman from the 15 people he puts on the commission.

Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi is automatically appointed to the constitutional board. The three remaining members are to be selected by the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Florida with the advice of the other justices. After holding hearings to receive public input, the commission has six months before the 2018 general election to place its proposed amendments on the ballot.

The last time a Constitutional Revision Commission convened, most of its members were appointed by Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat, and Senate president Toni Jennings and House speaker Dan Webster, both Republicans. Democrat Bob Butterworth was attorney general, so both parties were evenly represented on the commission.

In his radio appearance in September, Trujillo was adamant about ending state workers’ ability to collectively bargain salaries. During the interview, show host Roberto Rodriguez-Tejera suggested that private sector employees should unionize in order to get higher minimum wages considering government unions negotiate starting salaries for its members.

Trujillo countered that it would be more effective to eliminate the government unions’ power to negotiate collective bargaining agreements. “We are going to do it,” Trujillo said. “We have the Constitutional Revision Commission that is coming up. It is the opportunity to take things out of the Constitution.”

Yet, Trujillo told FloridaBulldog.org last week that the revision commission has more important issues to tackle, such as term limits for legislators and universal school vouchers. “Those are some things the commission should look at,” he said. “The state is facing much bigger problems than collective bargaining.”

Union leaders remain unconvinced. Trujillo’s comments have “turned into a battle cry for people who want to fight for all Floridians to achieve the American Dream,” said Monica Russo, executive vice president of SEIU Local 1199, which represents more than 22,000 public and private sector healthcare workers. “We are taking his threats very seriously.”

Broward Health commissioner upgrades unpaid post to well-paid lobbyist for hospital district

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org 

Clarence McKee, center, with  Gov. Rick Scott and former U.S. Rep. Allen West. Photo: McKee Communications

Clarence McKee, center, with Gov. Rick Scott and former U.S. Rep. Allen West. Photo: McKee Communications

When Clarence V. McKee quit his commissioner’s seat on the governing board of Broward Health in January, records show he urged his colleagues to keep an eye on consulting contracts doled out by the tax supported public health care system.

But less than a month later and without any public discussion by his former colleagues, McKee upgraded his unpaid position to a lobbying contract worth $65,000 courtesy of Broward Health Chief Executive Frank Nask, whose performance the board oversees.

McKee’s one-year contract with the North Broward Hospital District, Broward Health’s legal name, commenced March 1 – 29 days after he informed the board he was resigning.

Broward Health’s board never approved McKee’s 13-page contract to lobby in Tallahassee on the district’s behalf. They didn’t have to. Previously, Nask had been given the authority to sign contracts of up to $250,000.

McKee is the only former district board member to be employed as a lobbyist “during the time I have worked with Broward Health,” according to Charlotte Mather-Taylor-Taylor, a Broward Health executive in charge of government affairs and public relations. She has worked for Broward Health since June 1995, according to her resume on Linked In.

Mather-Taylor and McKee both said the idea of Broward Health employing McKee came up after his resignation and because of his experience and familiarity with the issues.

“I was approached by the administration, Charlotte and Frank, to be on the lobby team,” said McKee, whose reputation while on the board was something of a maverick. “I’m paranoid as hell and if I’d been approached before I left that board, or if somebody had suggested it, I wouldn’t have done it because given my voting pattern someone would have said I’d been bought off.”

FLORIDA’S ‘REVOLVING DOOR’ LAW

Florida’s narrowly drawn “revolving door” law prohibits legislators, elected officials and appointees from returning to lobby their government body for two years after leaving office. It does not speak to a situation like McKee’s.

“What this shows is that there are a lot of different issues that are not addressed in the statutes and rules, and in those situations everyone is supposed to use common sense and do what’s in the public interest and should avoid any appearance of impropriety. That isn’t what happened in this instance,” said Nova Southeastern University legal ethics professor Robert Jarvis.

Parkland-based McKee became the 11th member of the district’s formidable team of registered lobbyists. Senate records identify them as Ron Book, Jorge Chamizo, Charles Dudley, David and Candice Ericks, Jim Scott, Jason Unger, Brian Ballard and William Turbeville and Mather-Taylor. Nevertheless, Mather-Taylor said Ballard and Turbeville “were not on contract with us in 2013.”

McKee, a conservative Republican appointed to Broward Health’s board by Gov. Charlie Crist in 2010, also lobbies in Tallahassee for the Broward School Board. During the legislative session he operated under a one-year, $40,000-a-year contract. On Dec. 3, he signed a new, seven-month deal for $23,331.

What did McKee do for the money?

McKee told the School Board he focused on two issues in Tallahassee: securing legislation to obtain recurring funding for the board’s Broward Education Communications Network, or BECON, and passage of a bill that would let boards install cameras on school buses to help police identify drivers who fail to stop when a bus is displaying a stop signal. Neither became law.

In memos and email sent to Broward Health, and made public under the state’s Public Records Act, McKee described contacts with an aide to the governor and nearly a dozen South Florida state senators and representatives mostly during the session regarding issues involving Medicaid expansion and reimbursement, and the regulation of trauma centers.

“In all of the above, either directly in person or through staff, by phone or email, the Broward Health position was emphasized,” McKee said in a four-page report about his lobbying activities written days after the Legislature adjourned May 3.

LOBBYING ROLE NOT DISCLOSED

But McKee did other things, too.

He authored opinion articles for both the Sun-Sentinel and West Palm Beach-based Newsmax that pushed Broward Health’s agenda and buttered up allied legislators without disclosing to readers that he is a paid Broward Health lobbyist.

McKee reported back to his employers at Broward Health about the columns he’d written.

Here’s what McKee told Nask and Mather-Taylor about a March 27 article that ran in his Newsmax column, “The Silent Minority.” It was about a proposal by State Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, touted as an alternative to Medicaid expansion.

“Here is my article on Negron and the bill. My editors gave it a great headline “Dignified Alternative” and hopefully it can get legs and give House GOP an ‘out’ and ‘cover’ to support it or similar…Was done in such a way as NOT to anger any GOP or Dems…need all of their votes,” McKee wrote the day after the article appeared in an email released to BrowardBulldog.org.

The Newsmax article identifies McKee as “president of McKee Communications, Inc., a government, political and media relations consulting firm in Florida” and said he who once worked for President Reagan. A separate on-site biography erroneously stated that he was then a commissioner on the North Broward Hospital District.

The Sun-Sentinel article was written on June 22, more than a month after the legislative session had ended. In it, McKee strokes Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood “for keeping the debate of expanding health-care alive and well” by staging a “Town Hall on Healthcare” public meeting.

Two months earlier, McKee had lobbied Sobel and others to support Negron’s alternative health care plan, which he reported to Nask and Mather-Taylor they did.  The bill passed the Senate, but not the House.

“It was particularly important that Eleanor Sobel, who had been vice chair of the Select Committee on Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and was also a member of the Appropriations Committee, agreed to the Negron plan,” McKee wrote in his lobbying activity report.

The Sun-Sentinel article identifies McKee only as “president and CEO (of) McKee Communications Inc. and a former commissioner of Broward Health.

In an interview on Tuesday, McKee said he should have identified himself as a paid lobbyist in those articles.

“I’d never thought about it,” he said.

In addition to informing Nask and Mather-Taylor about his Sun-Sentinel piece, McKee also reported to them on the activities of John DeGroot, a former Sun-Sentinel reporter and columnist and outspoken critic of Broward Health and other local healthcare systems. DeGroot’s blog is http://john-degroot.com/

In a July 1 memo recounting Sobel’s standing room only Town Hall meeting, McKee reported that after passing out “literature on inequality of hospital care for minorities/ethnic groups” and criticizing Sobel, DeGroot and Sobel got into a “heated shouting match.”

“He, because of his tactics and demeanor, of course, was discounted by the audience,” McKee opined.

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