By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
Lauren Book, the newly anointed leader of Florida’s Senate Democrats, has a financial conflict of interest that’s raising questions about her loyalties as her beleaguered party prepares for the challenge of redistricting in January.
For the past two years, House and Senate Republicans decisively showered the Senate Minority Leader’s charity – Lauren’s Kids – with $4 million in taxpayer dollars.
The appropriations, including $2 million awarded in the regular session that ended April 30, were camouflaged to make it difficult for the public to spot them.
Since 2011, the Republican-controlled Legislature has lavished $19.69-million in grants on the sexual abuse prevention charity founded and led by the Plantation Democrat. In addition, Lauren’s Kids has collected hundreds of thousands of dollars from other Republican OK’d funding mechanisms, notably a specialty license plate.
State records indicate the charity intends to ask for another $2 million next year. “There is not currently a source of funding available that can be used in lieu of state funding,” says Lauren’s Kids most recent funding request.
Lauren’s salaries – and bonus
According to the latest available federal tax records, Lauren’s Kids paid Sen. Book an annual salary of $200,000 plus an incentive bonus of $15,000 in 2019. The bonus was not further explained.
The compensation Book received from Lauren’s Kids rose 49.1 percent between 2016, when she first took office, and 2019. Her salary from the charity in 2011 was $68,000. Her current Lauren’s Kids salary is $220,000, according to spokeswoman Claire VanSusteren. Book also draws a state senator’s salary of $29,697.
Book has said in the past, and VanSusteren reiterated this week, that “none of these dollars were derived from public funds.” That’s true, as far as it goes. State records show that millions in Lauren’s Kids grants were structured to pay for programs and staff salaries other than Book’s. But Book’s large salary would not be possible without the huge infusion of state dollars that have annually underwritten the charity’s other expenses.
Sen. Book, the daughter of influential lawyer-lobbyist and Lauren’s Kids chairman Ronald Book, did not respond to Florida Bulldog requests for comment. Ronald Book and his Aventura firm lobbied the Legislature for the grants, records state.
In a 2017 interview with Florida Bulldog, Sen. Book said she would not abstain from voting on matters involving her father’s clients or on measures sending millions of state dollars to benefit Lauren’s Kids. “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,” she said.
“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 funding directly inures to my benefit, which it does not.”
Political life with father
Just this week, Sen. Book acted to benefit one of her father’s clients, the Town of Davie, that she likewise represents by sponsoring an amendment to the state’s $500-million gambling compact struck with the Seminole Tribe on Wednesday. The amendment changed the formula for determining how much local governments adjacent to the tribe’s reservation casino near Hollywood are entitled to receive.
Because of Book’s amendment, Davie will rake in tens of thousands of dollars more annually at the expense of the more populous and more racially diverse Hollywood. The compact is a 30-year deal. U.S. Census Bureau estimates as of July 1, 2019: Davie’s population of 106,000 was 8.8 percent black; Hollywood’s population of 155,000 was 18.2 percent black.
The Legislature’s largesse toward Lauren’s Kids, while no secret to many Republicans or Democrats who, like Sen. Book, voted for it, nevertheless was curiously kept out of public sight. Indeed, Tallahassee insiders Florida Bulldog spoke with were unaware of the millions earmarked to Lauren’s Kids in 2020 and 2021, nor did any Florida media outlet report on those large payouts last year, or while covering this year’s record $101.5-billion state budget.
Why? The House and Senate legislators who sponsored the Lauren’s Kids grants modified the name of those appropriations.
Underlying documentation clearly identifies Lauren’s Kids as the 501(c)(3) tax-exempt entity that requested the twin $2-million grants to be funneled through the Department of Education. But unlike past years when “Lauren’s Kids” identified the recipient, the grant’s name was changed to “Safer, Smarter Schools” – the name of the Lauren’s Kids curriculum.
The result: the annual list of state-funded charities in the final appropriations bill no longer mentions Lauren’s Kids as receiving any funds. (See page 30 of this year’s SB 2500.)
State descriptions of the Lauren’s Kids program for 2020 and 2021 both say, “Funding will be utilized to continue to provide child abuse prevention curriculum and resources to Florida’s public schools, parents and communities.” This year’s description adds, “The onset of COVID-19 has elevated the need for these critical resources due to the documented rise in child abuse, maltreatment, digital exploitation & trafficking during the pandemic.”
The COVID-19 language looks like window dressing. No documentation to support the assertion that child abuse, exploitation and trafficking increased last year was provided when the funding request was filed on Feb. 17.
‘Troubled’ by camouflaged grants
The sponsors of the 2020 Lauren’s Kids grant were then-state Sen. Bill Montford, D-Marianna, and then-state Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples. This year, the sponsors were state Sen. Doug Broxson, R-Pensacola, and state Rep. Vance Aloupis Jr., R-Miami.
Florida Bulldog contacted some prominent South Florida Democrats to ask them about the recent disguised, multi-million dollar giveaway to Lauren’s Kids by the Republican-dominated Legislature.
“I am troubled by what you’re telling me,” said a former state senator who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It sounds bad, certainly. It may be bad. I don’t know. If I were still in the Senate,I would want to know a lot more.”
Another former legislator now in local elective office said she was “concerned” both by Book’s sizeable compensation from Lauren’s Kids, as well as her charity’s dependence on Republicans for continuing support.
“The challenge for her is going to be that she needs to bend over backwards to be more ethical than other people. Everybody’s watching her,” she said. “She should step aside from the charity while she’s the Democratic leader.”
Florida Bulldog reached out to several key Senate Democrats for comment, including Miami’s Annette Taddeo, Tampa’s Janet Cruz and Jacksonville’s Audrey Gibson. None responded.
Lauren Book sees additional Republican funding
Even before Book was elected to the Senate, her father was a significant presence in Tallahassee. In 2013 Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, filed a bill that amended state law to allow Lauren’s Kids to collect $25 fees from the sale by specialty license plates sold by the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
Further, the DMV allows Lauren’s Kids to insert in every auto tag renewal notice mailed to more than 6 million vehicle owners a brochure asking the public for donations. Miami-Dade and Broward counties facilitate individual $1 donations by including a box for people to check on their car registration renewal forms.
In 2019 alone, Lauren’s Kids reported that the department paid it $536,000.
Lauren Book, who was sexually and physically abused by her nanny for six years starting at age 11, founded Lauren’s Kids in 2007. She was elected to the state Senate without opposition in 2016 and again in 2018. She’s running for re-election next year.
To date, her campaign has raised $170,000 and the political committee she chairs – Leadership for Florida – has collected another $246,500. A chunk of that money comes from at least a half-dozen of her father’s lobbying clients.
Incumbent Book, 36, has a Republican opponent in 2022, Davie resident Diana Bivona Belviso, 34. Belviso’s campaign reports receiving a single in-kind contribution: $300, for professional photographs.
Lauren Book established Leadership for Florida in 2014 with the help of Tampa accountant Nancy Watkins, who remains the political committee’s treasurer. Watkins and her husband, Robert, have for decades kept the books for numerous Republican candidates and conservative political groups in Florida and around the country. The Tampa Bay Times reported in 2019 that Watkins’ clients have included then-President Donald Trump, Sen. Marco Rubio and Fort Lauderdale resident Roger Stone’s legal defense fund.
The new Senate Minority Leader has had generally warm relations with Florida’s Republican governors. Gov. Ron DeSantis, not known for praising Democrats, put out an effusive statement calling her “an internationally respected child safety expert” who fights “for Florida’s families.”
In 2015, then-Gov. Rick Scott, now a U.S. senator, hugged Lauren Book and appeared with Ron Book on the steps of Florida’s Historic Capitol amid a rally for Lauren’s Kids.
Book rose to become minority leader less than a month ago after Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, was ousted following a unanimous vote of no confidence. Book, who became next in line for minority leader after Fort Lauderdale state Sen. Perry Thurston filed to run for the late U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings’ seat in Congress. Book is scheduled to remain minority leader until 2024.