By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
Corruption. The dictionary defines it as “dishonest or illegal behavior, especially by powerful people.”
How else to explain the failures of both the Florida Senate and the Florida ethics commission to hold powerful National Rifle Association lobbyist and board member Marion Hammer accountable for not disclosing more than $1.7 million in arguably illegal payments she received from the NRA between 2007 and 2018?
The New York Attorney General’s Office figured out much of the NRA’s self-dealing scheme, including hundreds of thousands of dollars in unapproved payments to Hammer, and exposed it for everyone to see in a lawsuit last summer. And last week, even the tax-exempt NRA itself began to acknowledge the abuse of its funds by identifying in its annual 990 form for 2019 its chief executive – and key Hammer ally – Wayne LaPierre and other current and former executives as having used the NRA’s coffers like a personal piggybank.
So why didn’t two of Florida’s most powerful institutions catch on and enforce the law against Hammer? The apparent answer: endemic corruption.
But the Republican-led Senate and the ostensibly independent ethics commission weren’t the only state institutions that did not cover themselves in glory. The Republican-led House punted to the Senate when one of its members complained. When the Senate sidestepped its duty to investigate, the House dismissed the complaint altogether.
And then there’s the involvement, or lack thereof, of Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only Democrat to hold statewide office.
Democrat Fried does nothing
Fried, as boss of the state’s regulatory agency for charities, did nothing to enforce apparent violations of state law by Unified Sportsmen of Florida (USF), the NRA’s nonprofit affiliate created and run by Hammer. The Tallahassee Democrat reported in August 2019 that Hammer had received about $300,000 in low-interest loans from USF, and Florida Bulldog followed up with a story reporting that the loans were illegal under Florida Statute 617.0833, which prohibits not-for-profit corporations like USF from loaning money to their directors or officers.
Likewise, Fried has not enforced state laws that require nonprofits like USF to register, disclose certain information and pay fees to be eligible to solicit contributions from the public. Fried’s Republican predecessor, self-proclaimed “proud NRA sell-out” Adam Putnam, had granted USF an exemption from the registration requirements of the Solicitation of Contributions Act because it only solicits contributions from its membership. Fried apparently adopted that position despite the fact that USF’s pitch for contributions on its application for membership is available on the worldwide web.
And since news of the New York Attorney General’s lawsuit broke in August neither Fried nor Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody has moved to investigate how the disturbing assertions in its lawsuit apply in Florida. The lawsuit says NRA Executive Vice President and CEO LaPierre and other NRA executives diverted “millions of dollars away” from the NRA “for personal use by senior leadership, awarding contracts to the financial gain of close associates and family, and appearing to dole out no-show contracts to former employees in order to buy their silence and continued loyalty.”
NRA’s face in Florida
NRA board member Marion Hammer is among LaPierre’s close associates. The New York lawsuit recounts various unapproved payments to Hammer [identified only as Board Member No. 5] from “the Executive Vice President’s Consulting budget.” Those unapproved payments included a 10-year contract signed in April 2018 by LaPierre and Hammer, now 81, for $220,000 annually.
For decades, Hammer has been the NRA’s public face in Florida. She was president of the NRA in the late 1990s. As an outspoken lobbyist, she’s ushered in some of the state’s toughest pro-gun laws in the country – Including the controversial Stand Your Ground law in 2005.
While she managed for years to keep it off the books in Florida, Hammer has made an exceptional living doing her job. NRA federal tax filings show that between 2005 and 2019 the group paid her $2.1 million. In the same 15-year period, USF, which gets most of its money from the NRA, paid her an annually salary of $110,000, or $1.65 million. The grand total: $3.75 million. That doesn’t count additional payments the lawsuit said she receives from the NRA-ILA (the NRA’s lobbying arm, or Institute for Legislative Action).
LaPierre recently testified to New York authorities that Hammer currently “receives about $400,000 in annual compensation from the NRA,” according to the lawsuit.
Hammer’s NRA income became a subject of legislative interest in Florida in May 2019 after Florida Bulldog reported that while a report by the NRA’s Secretary said the group had paid Hammer more than a quarter million dollars in 2018 for “consulting services and legislative lobbying in Florida,” Hammer had not disclosed those payments on quarterly compensation reports that lobbying firms and contract lobbyist are required to file with the Florida Senate.
The NRA’s federal tax returns show it paid Hammer $1.7 million from 2007 through 2018. Hammer disclosed none of those payments on the required Senate forms.
By the end of May, State Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, and Rep. Anna V. Eskamani, D-Orlando, filed complaints with Senate and House oversight authorities seeking probes. Thurston also asked the ethics commission to investigate.
Republicans do nothing
Senate rules regulating the conduct of lobbyists require the chair of the Senate Rules Committee to decide within 30 days if the complaint states facts that, if true, would be a violation “the complaint shall be referred to a special master or select committee to determine probable cause.”
But that didn’t happen. Why? Because the rules committee chair was Hammer’s political ally, then-Sen. Lizbeth Benaquisto, R- Fort Myers. Instead of investigating, she steered the matter for “review” and “appropriate action” to an obscure bureaucratic office that processes lobbyist registrations and was under the control of then-Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton.
It is widely known that Republican legislators fear the blunt-spoken Hammer because of the annual legislative report cards she sends out to NRA and USF members. Lawmakers are graded on their votes on gun issues. A poor grade can cost a candidate votes – a lot of votes.
So when Benaquisto bounced Perry’s complaint out of the Senate, the review fell to Office of Legislative Services General Counsel Audrey Moore. In August 2019, she decided that Hammer, a registered lobbyist, was not obliged to file quarterly compensation reports because she was not a contract lobbyist for the NRA, but rather an in-house lobbyist for Unified Sportsmen. That put the blame not on Hammer individually, but on her organization, USF.
Still, to form that opinion, Moore reached the dubious conclusion that the NRA Secretary’s reports for 2017 and 2018 stating that Hammer was paid for “lobbying in Florida” were “incorrect.”
Moore instructed Hammer to amend her lobbyist registration for the years 2016-2019 to show that USF was in fact a “lobbying firm” and to file quarterly compensation reports on its behalf, which she did. No fines were assessed, even though failure to file timely compensation reports can lead to fines of $50 per day per report for each late day, up to $5,000 per report.
On Aug. 23, 2019 Galvano declared the Senate’s case closed. Three days later, Rep. Tom Leek R-Ormond Beach, who chaired the House Public Integrity and Ethics Commission, lauded Hammer for taking “appropriate corrective action” and dismissed the matter.
Ethics commission does nothing
Hammer’s case went dormant until July 2020 when the Florida Commission on Ethics announced it had found “no probable cause” to believe that Hammer had not adhered to state lobbyist registration requirements. And though it was clearly established that Hammer did not disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars in NRA payments dating to 2007, the commission also dismissed a second allegation that she failed to appropriately file lobbyist compensation reports.
“The public interest would not be served by our proceeding further,” the nine-member commission’s report said. To proceed further would have meant to send the case to the governor and cabinet for a possible public hearing.
But a review of the audio of the ethics commission’s closed-door discussion of the case five days earlier showed that their official, public verdict was the opposite of what they’d concluded privately. They chose to give Hammer a pass because she’d since filed reports as instructed by the Office of Legislative Services.
“There is probable cause here, but because the remedy…everything has been cleaned up and amended and the public now knows, that’s why you suggest” dismissing the allegations that she had failed to file compensation reports. “Is that correct?” said commission chair Kimberly Bonder Rezanka, a Cocoa attorney appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“That’s correct,” replied Commission Advocate Melody Hadley, an assistant attorney general.
Ignoring significant facts
But the commission that bills itself as “the guardian of the standards of conduct for officers and employees of Florida” and interpreter of its ethics laws, ignored two significant facts.
First, that Hammer did not voluntarily disclose anything. She disclosed only after getting caught. Second, the disclosure reports weren’t available to the public when they were supposed to be, times when proposed gun laws were being debated. For example, after the massacre at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in February 2018, as Hammer worked behind the scenes to rally support against provisions of a school safety bill, few knew the NRA had paid her $270,000 that year alone.
Then there are the curious defects in the ethics commission’s deferential probe that helped it arrive at the outcome favored by powerful Republican legislators who’d already sought to make Hammer’s case go away as painlessly as possible while ignoring Senate rules as to how to conduct an investigation.
The commission relied heavily on the prior Office of Legislative Services “review” under the auspices of the Senate’s Republican leadership. It issued no subpoenas for information or testimony. Its investigators accepted without elaboration Hammer’s bald assertions – like her insistence that NRA payments to her weren’t for lobbying in Florida but for out-of-state consulting. Its 25-page report was altered several times at the request of Hammer’s lawyer to remove language describing her alleged offenses.
In the end were Hammer’s connections on the commission. Former Senate President Don Gaetz and former Sen. John Grant, are both NRA members and Republicans who worked previously with Hammer on legislation. They and a third commissioner, whose name could not be discerned from the audio tape, disclosed their ties to Hammer, but did not recuse themselves from judging her.
“I don’t think it will impair my judgment,” the third man said. He did not elaborate.
David Oakes / December 2, 2020 9:26 am
Fine story, Dan. Thorough. Factual. And, hopefully, continuing with more coverage.
Amy Roberts / December 2, 2020 4:09 pm
I agree with Mr. Oakes.