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Talk of Reforming 527 Groups Following Brutal Election

The hard-hitting campaign that ended with John Thrasher’s election to the Florida Senate this month sparked calls for tighter regulation of murky political organizations which spent heavily for and against the Republican contender.

But legislative leaders now are showing little interest in a Democratic senator’s proposal aimed at capping individual contributions to these 527 organizations at $500.

A handful of 527s, currently unregulated in Florida, hurled the bulk of the incendiary charges that scorched the Senate District 8 race and fueled demands for reform.

“If you put limits and regulations on these groups, you’re going to bring more accountability to the system,” said Sen. Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg, who is running for Congress. “The way it is now, you might as well not have campaign finance rules.”

Thrasher was named chairman of the Ethics and Elections Committee, the day after his election two weeks ago. His appointment was designed to bring “transparency in elections – especially as it relates to 527s,” according to Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, who named Thrasher.

But limiting spending by these shadowy groups doesn’t look like part of leadership’s plan.

“I think people ought to know who’s behind these organizations,” Thrasher said. “Who’s giving should be revealed on a real-time basis. It’s not so much the money – people want to know why is it that `A’ is giving to ‘B.’”

Such questions continue to hover over Thrasher’s campaign.

In the race to win the Senate seat stretching from Jacksonville to Daytona Beach, most of the attention was focused on hard-edged television spots and direct mail by organizations allied with Florida’s trial lawyer group.

Stop Tax Waste, Inc., Conservative Citizens for Justice, and the Conservative Voters Coalition spent heavily to blunt the election of Thrasher, a former House speaker and Florida Medical Association lobbyist who has vowed to revive efforts to enact more lawsuit limits and liability protections for businesses.

A racially-tinged mailer sent to almost 90,000 homes in the district also backfired on the trial lawyer organization, the Florida Justice Association, drawing outrage from the usually supportive Legislative Black Caucus.

Attempting to mend fences, the FJA announced Friday that it had suspended three top officials and have imposed stricter oversight of political spending to avoid a repeat of the mailing controversy.

But those supporting Thrasher were involved in similar sleight-of-hand spending through 527s, which are named after a section of the federal tax code. These political committees face no limits in Florida since a federal court earlier this year declared unconstitutional a state requirement that they report donations and register with the Secretary of State.

Among Thrasher’s biggest backers was a 527 operating out of Gainesville called the Committee for Responsible Representation. The committee paid for mailers fired out across the Senate district blistering Thrasher opponents as “ultraliberal personal injury trial lawyers” who supported President Barack Obama.

Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, who is leading Republican Senate campaigns heading into next fall’s elections, has steered $752,700 to the Gainesville committee through a 527 he controls, called the Freedom First Committee.

Freedom First has raised $1.5 million, according to its web site. While Haridopolos touts the transparency his organization provides – with campaign contributions and spending posted on the Internet – the Committee for Responsible Representation provides no such trail.

Haridopolos’ Freedom First also has accepted more than 110 contributions from the time it was established in May through early this month. Only one contribution was as small as $500 – the limit proposed by Justice in his legislation (SB 360).

By contrast, Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Jacksonville, whose lobbyist, Mike Hightower, was a major Thrasher supporter, contributed $100,000; the Florida Medical Association, Thrasher’s former employer, gave $50,000, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce gave $225,000. The Florida Chamber, also a contributor, backed Thrasher in the Senate race.

“I’m open to the idea of opening up the books for everyone,” Haridopolos said, describing his view of 527 regulation. “People expect transparency. But I’m not sure how far we can go to limit contributions.”

Justice said such reluctance may stem from who gains the most from the current system.

“It’s ridiculous in Florida that we have rules prohibiting someone from buying a cup of coffee for a legislator, but you can send $5,000 to a committee that will support his campaign,” Justice said.

2 Responses »

  1. I hope we do see reform in this area in the 2010 session. The District 8 Senate race was a disgrace in terms of the 527's. I am dubious of the claim by Florida Justice Association that no leader saw the racial mailer or approved it and remain unimpressed by the suspensions of the few employees.

    I was shocked that an attempt to capture a voter's absentee ballot request is not illegal. Florida voters deserve reform as this type of activity does nothing but drive voters away from the polls...although the pure ugliness of this race surely created a backlash that helped elect a good man in Senator Thrasher in even greater numbers.

  2. I was so disgusted with the campaign run by the two major contenders that I voted for that Art fellow. I got sick of getting their stuff in my mail everyday