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.

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

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SPECIAL TREATMENT FOR LAUREN’S KIDS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A PAC ALL HER OWN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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