By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
When conservative Nebraska Republican U.S. Senator Ben Sasse won his extremely lucrative job as University of Florida president in November 2022, he promised to practice “political celibacy” and avoid partisan politics.
“Frankly, I find it super appealing to be able to step back from politics for a time. I would have no activity in partisan politics in any way,” Sasse told the University of Florida Board of Trustees in Gainesville on Nov. 1, 2022. He assumed office in February.
So what’s Sasse going to do with the $2.67 million in cash he’s got quietly stashed away in his former Senate campaign committee and his alliterative leadership PAC, Sensible American Solutions Supporting Everyone Inc.
He has options. He could return money to people who contributed to him. He could contribute to federal, state or local candidates subject to various dollars limit. He could hand out unlimited amounts to federal and state Republican or Democratic (unlikely) parties. He could give unlimited amounts to Super PACs or 501 (c) organizations, including dark money 501 (c) (4) organizations, or 501 (c) (3) charities like the UF Foundation or the Florida Bulldog (unlikely).
The Federal Election Commission’s guidance is that former campaign committees should wind down or convert to political action committees within two years of the candidate leaving office. But experts say that’s widely ignored by former candidates who tell the FEC they haven’t yet made up their mind about whether to seek election to another federal office.
SASSE CLAMS UP
Here’s what Sasse, 51, told Florida Bulldog about his plans for all that money: nothing. He didn’t respond to our inquiries about his campaign committee, Ben Sasse for U.S. Senate, Inc., over two days last week.
Among the questions we hoped to ask: Why was SASSE PAC still accepting contributions after he’d become UF president? Jacksonville resident William H. Walton III, managing member and co-founder of Rockpoint, a Boston-based private equity firm that has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in South Florida commercial real estate, contributed $5,000 on March 31, 2023, FEC records show.
Landing a job like university president is financially rewarding. And in Florida under the leadership of aspiring presidential candidate Gov. Ron DeSantis, Republican conservatives like Sasse are lately the candidates of choice.
- Former state House Speaker Richard Corcoran took over as interim president of Sarasota’s New College of Florida last February after DeSantis and the Board of Governors appointed seven new members of the Board of Trustees who in turn replaced the more liberal-minded Patricia Okker with DeSantis ally Corcoran.
- Henry Mack III, another DeSantis ally, was appointed president of Broward College by its Board of Trustees last Oct. 3, but lost the job a day later when negotiations over his salary and tenure broke down. Earlier in 2023, Mack lost out on the presidency of Florida Gulf Coast University by a single vote after students complained he’d follow DeSantis’s lead and create a more right-leaning institution like New College.
- Palm Bay Republican State Rep. Randy Fine has said he was DeSantis’s initial choice to lead Boca Raton’s Florida Atlantic University, but a search committee bypassed him, causing a bitter rift with the governor after Fine then endorsed Donald Trump for president.
- Fred Hawkins, another Republican state representative and DeSantis supporter, had no academic experience when he was named president of South Florida State College, with campuses in DeSoto, Hardee and Highlands counties, by its Board of Trustees in June.
For Ben Sasse, who holds a doctorate degree in history, the post of UF president brought with it an apparently unprecedented financial bonanza.
SASSE CONTRACT’S GOODIES
George Mason University public policy professors Judith Wilde and James Finkelstein have collected and analyzed the contracts of more than 300 university presidents over the last decade. In November 2022, they reviewed Sasse’s contract and wrote about their findings for Higher Ed Dive, which provides in-depth journalism about news and trends shaping higher education.
They found that Sasse’s contract, with base salary of $1million, has a potential value of nearly $9.7 million across his five-year term. The pair called Sasse’s contract “the richest we have seen.”
Wilde and Finkelstein wrote that doesn’t include the value of other benefits for which Sasse is eligible, including a term life insurance policy with an initial value of $3 million that will increase each year based on his salary; a supplemental disability policy that would guarantee Sasse at least 60 percent of his annual salary plus his accrued retention bonus; transition expenses related to moving his households from both Nebraska and Washington, D.C. to Florida; and reimbursement of the legal fees he paid for negotiating his contract.
The professors also noted several “unusual perks that we have never seen in a public university president’s contract.” They include tuition waivers for his parents and grandchildren; a spousal travel benefit for his wife, Melissa, and their three children, college-age daughters Corrie and Alex and younger son, Breck, who lives with his parents rent-free in the Dasburg President’s House in Gainesville.
Fresh Take Florida, the news service of UF’s College of Journalism, reported early in January 2023 that UF was spending $300,000 to install a new swimming pool behind the 7,400-square-foot mansion.
THE CONTRACT’S ‘UNUSUAL FEATURES’
Wilde and Finkelstein wrote that “one of the most unusual features” of Sasse’s contract is “the terms for a post-presidential faculty appointment.” Sasse is “guaranteed” a “full-time faculty” job with an assignment and salary to be set by the chair of the university’s Board of Trustees.
“This language gives the chair of the governing board wide latitude in determining Sasse’s post-presidential salary and assignment. In theory, he could decide that Sasse will continue to be paid his presidential salary or something significantly less, grant him tenure or give him a term contract or require Sasse teach three courses per term or none at all,” Wilde and Finkelstein wrote.
“We have never come across a contract with the terms of a post-presidential appointment so open-ended or with the board chair having what is essentially sole authority to dictate the terms.”
Who is UF’s board chair? Morteza “Mori” Hosseini, chairman and Chief Executive Officer of ICI Homes.
DeSantis appointed Hosseini to UF’s board in February 2021. Hosseini’s ICI Homes has donated more than $150,000 to DeSantis’s political action committee Empower Parents, formerly known as Friends of Ron DeSantis. And from 2018 to 2022 ICI kicked in another $180,000 to the Republican Party of Florida.
On a less political note, the Washington Post reported in June 2023 that Hosseini lent an expensive golf simulator to the governor’s mansion for an unlimited term during DeSantis’s first term.
The Post also reported that Hosseini also lent DeSantis and his wife the use of his private plane on at least 12 occasions, including as recently as February 2023. Other news outlets have reported that Hosseini took DeSantis to play at Georgia’s Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters Tournament, and that in 2021 DeSantis named the Augusta club’s chairman, Fred Ridley, to join Hosseini on UF’s board. Ridley is also partner in the Republican-connected and Jacksonville-based law firm Foley & Lardner.