By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
A new political attack ad committee was launched in Fort Lauderdale last week, but who is behind it and why is largely a mystery.
The group operates under the name The Committee for Ethics in Government. Its address is a mail drop at a downtown UPS store. Messages left on its voicemail draw no response. And federal and state records identify the committee chairwoman as a 21-year-old political unknown who shares an address with her parents in Davie.
Federal and state records do reveal the committee was established by Republican campaign accounting guru Nancy Watkins of Tampa.
As a Florida electioneering communications organization, the committee can’t expressly advocate for or against a candidate. It can, however, collect unlimited contributions from individuals and corporations on election issues. So far, it hasn’t reported any donations or expenditures.
The next general election is Nov. 2 and includes a range of candidates, from U.S. Congress to the governor, state legislature and local races that include four seats on the county commission.
Documents show the committee’s chairwoman and treasurer is Cecilia Schejtman. Schejtman did not respond to requests for comment left at her home and at the committee’s listed phone number.
Watkins, a Tampa accountant who also serves as treasurer or registered agent for dozens of candidates and political committees around the country, declined to discuss Schejtman or the group.
“I can’t. It’s my client,” said Watkins, adding she would relay a message to Schejtman.
Former no-party gubernatorial candidate Lawton “Bud” Chiles, who wants more public disclosure by political committees, threw a spotlight on Watkins’ accounting operation in August when he stood in front of her office at a press conference and labeled it the site of “legal money laundering,” according to a report by the News Service of Florida. Watkins countered that she strictly follows the law.
Locally, Watkins serves as treasurer of Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff’s leadership PAC, Creating Possibilities. Bogdanoff chairs the House Finance and Tax Council. Her PAC has accepted more than $120,000 in large contributions from health care, insurance and other special interests since May 2009.
The Committee for Ethics is most likely intended to target a state or local candidate or issue. Like all political organizations, however, it is registered as a 527 organization with the Internal Revenue Service.
The Supreme Court decided decades ago that voters are entitled to know who is giving to political candidates and causes by upholding the constitutionality of campaign finance disclosure laws.
But secrecy has staged a strong comeback, and special interests looking to shield themselves from public disclosure are using 527s and other arcane organizations to stay in the shadows.
One favorite in this year’s congressional races is the 501(c) (4) tax-exempt organization, which isn’t required to disclose its contributors.
The Committee for Ethics and other 527s can be used to veil those who set them up. They also can be used to avoid disclosing the identity of contributors until after an election is over. 527s that don’t register with the IRS until after October 10, 2010 won’t have to disclose any contributors until after the election is over.