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Dean Cannon Kicks in $150k for Bill McCollum

House Speaker-designate Dean Cannon has placed a $150,000 bet on what may be a long shot in the race for governor – fellow Republican Bill McCollum.

A political committee Cannon raises money for, the Florida Liberty Fund, steered $150,000 last week to a shadowy political spending group which three days later began airing a television ad critical of McCollum’s primary rival, Rick Scott.

The ad, aired by the Florida First Initiative, a Tallahassee-based political committee, has been running a $600,000, hard-hitting weeklong statewide TV spot accusing Scott of profiting from the “largest Medicare fraud in American history.”

Another group, Alliance for America’s Future, recently spent close to $2 million on TV ads critical of Scott. The alliance is led by Mary Cheney, daughter of the former vice-president.

“I help raise money for the Florida Liberty Fund because it helps conservative candidates and causes,” Cannon said in a statement to the News Service of Florida.

Cannon downplayed his involvement in Florida Liberty Fund spending decisions. The Winter Park Republican, however, is the only individual listed on the fund’s website.

Earlier this year, Cannon withdrew $655,000 from the Florida Republican Party and deposited it in the Liberty Fund amid rising concern about the GOP’s financial health under then-chairman Jim Greer. Cannon pushed the money back to the party in March, after Greer, who now faces federal felony charges, was ousted.

But the money pouring into Florida First is likely helping fund the TV push that has emerged as McCollum apparently lost his GOP frontrunner status to Scott. A Quinnipiac University poll released last week shows the attorney general 11 percentage points behind Scott among likely primary voters.

Like Cannon’s Liberty Fund, Florida First is a 527 organization, a term derived from the section of the IRS code which governs it. Florida First’s ad accuses Scott of profiting from the “largest Medicare fraud in American history.”

The ads were slated to air through Wednesday.

The contribution to Florida First apparently exceeded the amount of money in the Liberty Fund. But two days after the check went out, the Liberty Fund was replenished by a $100,000 contribution from the Florida Retail Federation Political Action Committee, which had given the same amount to the leader’s account in two different installments earlier this year.

Retail Federation president Rick McCallister did not immediately return a call from the News Service of Florida.

Scott, the former CEO of the Columbia/HCA hospital chain, left the company in 1997 shortly before it reached $1.7 billion in fines and settlements with federal investigators for what was considered the largest health care fraud in the nation’s history. Scott, who has spent about $15 million from his own pocket on television advertising, has tried to distance himself from the wrongdoing with a spot claiming he “wasn’t charged or even questioned by authorities.”

McCollum’s campaign has said it is not associated with either the Florida First or Alliance for America’s Future TV spots, although McCollum’s media strategist, Chris Mattola, has worked with both organizations.

Florida First’s officers include Stafford Jones, the Alachua County Republican chairman, a McCollum supporter whose War Room Logistics media company has been involved for years in Florida political campaigns and was associated with a “Don’t Bank on Sink” website last year that blistered the presumptive Democratic gubernatorial Alex Sink’s record.

First Florida’s registered agent, Ken Cleary, is a vice-president with a Tallahassee contracting company.

Both Scott and McCollum plan to file their candidate qualifying papers Thursday with state elections officials. The McCollum campaign said its candidate will be accompanied by Cannon and Everett Wilkinson, Florida Tea Party chairman.

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