By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
In the waning days of the most recent Florida legislative session, it appeared the nonprofit agency founded and run by Plantation State Sen. Lauren Book would walk away with only half-a-million dollars in taxpayer funding after consecutive years of receiving seven-figure sums.
Then came the April 30th meeting of the budget conference chairs. That’s when Lauren’s Kids got sprinkled.
The so-called “sprinkle list” is used to describe how legislators shower favored organizations with additional dollars near the end of session.
Toward the end of the hearing, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Sen. Rob Bradley, R- Green Cove Springs, announced that the children’s cancer awareness foundation Live Like Bella and Book’s organization, Lauren’s Kids, had been erroneously left off the list. He said each would receive an additional $500,000.
With a stroke of a pen, Bradley made sure his colleague’s nonprofit walked away with $1 million for its educational outreach program aimed at preventing sexual and physical abuse against children, as well as encouraging the reporting of child-abuse cases. Book later voted to approve the budget bill containing the allocation for Lauren’s Kids.
But according to ethics watchdogs, the large allocation of public funds to a senator’s nonprofit raises concerns about whether Book, a Democrat, properly disclosed her ties to Lauren’s Kids. Likewise, they question the legislative practice of doling out public dollars to private groups after legislative committees have already voted on how much money the groups should receive.
Peter Cruise, executive director of Florida Atlantic University’s LeRoy Collins Public Ethics Academy, said the sprinkle list subverts the committee process. “It becomes more concerning if it involves a legislator and the organization has her name on it, even if it’s for helping abused kids,” said Cruise, who is also a Palm Beach County ethics commissioner. “Things like this should not happen, no matter how worthy the cause is.”
Ben Wilcox, research director for the watchdog organization Integrity Florida, said legislators only have to disclose a possible conflict of interest if the appropriation directly benefits them. “She can argue that it is not a direct benefit to her because the allocation is to the nonprofit,” Wilcox explained. “But it is a really gray area. If I were her, I would err on the side of full disclosure.”
Furthermore, Book should have sought an opinion from the Senate’s general counsel before voting on the state budget, Wilcox said. “If you don’t take some steps to fully disclose what could be a potential conflict, it doesn’t look good to the public,” he said.
Since its inception in 2007, Lauren’s Kids has sought and received grant funding from the state, collecting more than $13 million in the last five years alone. The senator, a rising Broward Democrat whose father is powerhouse lobbyist Ron Book, receives a $144,250 salary as Lauren’s Kids CEO, according to the nonprofit’s 2016 tax return, the most recent available. The same document shows that government grants represented 68 percent of Lauren’s Kids 2016 $4.1 million revenue. Book’s Senate salary is $29,697.
In a 2017 interview before the start of her first year in office, Book told Florida Bulldog that she consulted the Senate’s general counsel about voting on issues relating to Lauren’s Kids. She said she was advised “that I do not abstain on these matters unless the funding directly inures to my benefit, which it will not.” Book insisted that her CEO salary was restructured so that is not paid with state funds and that she derives no personal benefit from public tax dollars.
During her first term, Book has quickly risen up the ranks in the Republican-controlled Legislature. She is chairwoman of the Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee and is a member of the Appropriations Committee and two appropriations subcommittees that oversee education, health and human services. However, she has been mostly ineffective in passing her own legislative agenda.
According to her Senate website, 37 of 45 bills Book sponsored died at the committee level, including measures to establish trust and compensation funds for victims’ families of the Feb. 14, 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High mass shooting.
A ‘scrivener’s error’
As a member of the Appropriations Committee and subcommittees, Sen. Book was at the April 30th budget conference. When Bradley said a ‘scrivener’s error’ had mistakenly left off funding for Live Like Bella and Lauren’s Kids, Book was a few feet away from the Senate appropriations chairman, according to video footage of the meeting.
“As an appointed member of the overall Joint Budget Conference Committee and a member of both the Education and the Health and Human Services Budget Conference Sub-Committees it was my duty to be there,” Book said in an emailed statement. The senator said the $500,000 sprinkle for Lauren’s Kids was requested by Democratic Sen. Bill Montford of Leon County, who also is the CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. Bradley and Montford did not respond to phone messages and emails requesting comment.
Book said she became aware of the scrivener’s error during the budget conference, but that she did not discuss Lauren’s Kids funding with any of the legislators or Senate staff in attendance.
Lauren’s Kids spokeswoman Claire VanSusteren told Florida Bulldog that Book has not been involved with any legislative funding requests related to the nonprofit.
“She does not lobby her colleagues on the budget, and does not participate in foundation-related legislative updates as she is no longer a member of the Lauren’s Kids board of directors,” VanSusteren said. “The only exception has been to vote on a final state budget as is required of her as a state senator.”
Cruise, the ethics commissioner, said having a colleague like Montford sponsor funding for Lauren’s Kids puts some distance between the senator and her nonprofit, but that the sprinkle list subverts the vetting process undertaken by the legislative committees.
“The appropriations process is extremely political,” Cruise said. “It is hard to get on an agenda and organizations can get knocked out at the last minute. To have something come out of left field is not the way the process is supposed to work.”