By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
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.
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.
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.
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.”