A vicious attack flier. Secret money. A lawmaker indirectly steering cash from one lobbyist to another. Oh, and a dose of porn and infidelity.
The Tom Lee-Rachel Burgin Republican state Senate race is as Tallahassee as it gets. It shows how the state Capitol really works behind the scenes when it comes to lawmaker votes and elections.
It all blew up this week when a group called The American People Committee sent a potentially unlawful attack flier bashing Tom Lee, a former Senate president, by linking him to Hillsborough County's porn-vexed property appraiser. Florida Senate Republican leaders hit the roof. They began contacting the lobbyists and special interests who helped fund the committee behind the flier. The message: bad idea.
One name was at the top of the list for stroking a $10,000 check July 5: Uber-moneyman and lobbyist David Ramba. He said he told future Senate President Andy Gardiner, with whom he'll attend a baseball fundraiser today, that he knew almost nothing about how the money was going to be used.
Ramba's explanation: He was told to cough up the money by Lee's opponent, Rep. Rachel Burgin. The check was cut on behalf of another committee, Save Our Internet Access, which represent so-called internet cafes (i.e., small gambling operations)
"She told me where to direct the money," Ramba said. "She asked for support and, since she has been supportive of our issues, we were happy to do it."
But Burgin said Ramba's explanation is "not quite accurate....It's inaccurate."
Ramba said he asked Burgin if she needed "hard" money (i.e., hard-to-raise individual contributions subject to a $500 limit) or "soft" money -- that is, easy-to-raise limitless contributions for a Committee of Continuous Existence (CCE) or an Electioneering Communication Organization (ECO).
"Soft is easier than hard," Ramba said. "I asked where she wanted the money and she gave me a name."
Who was that?
"Jack," said Ramba, referring to Jack Cory, who helped establish The American People Committee and has a personal beef with Lee. Lee stoked the ire of the lobby corps for implementing a lobbyist gift-ban and for requiring them to disclose some of their fees when he was Senate President.
Ramba said he didn't know where the money he was contributing was specifically going. He said, essentially, that he was just helping out lawmakers who have been good to his clients -- a time-honored political tradition. Cory took the cash and deposited it in The American People Committee account, which then sent out mailers that essentially made Lee look like a cad and a lout.
It was condemned earlier this week by the Republican Party of Florida. Incoming Senate President Don Gaetz, Gardiner, and Sens Jack Latvala, Joe Negron and John Thrasher just issued a statement of support for Lee soon. That's a clear indication that Cory and his wife, Keyna Cory, are on the outs with top GOP leaders. And the Associated Industries of Florida, which employs Keyna Cory, is under pressure to let her go.
Jack Cory also faces some potential, though minor, legal problems. The flier is an electioneering communication. It needs to be paid for by an ECO. But The American People Committee is a CCE, which isn't supposed to fund political causes (although CCEs can dump money into ECOs, so it's almost a distinction without a difference).
But can a CCE fund a campaign mailer directly?
"No," said Ramba, a campaign-finance expert. "I was wondering when someone was going to ask that."
Burgin faces potential questions about what she knew (she denies she knew anything about the flier) and whether she skirted a law that requires lawmakers to register with the state before soliciting contributions on behalf of a political committee.
Burgin said she didn't know about the committee or its goings on.
"I didn’t know of any particular committee," she said. "I gave him a list of people and they handled it."
Ramba, who has vast experience with establishing committees, said Burgin is probably in the clear because she didn't solicit on behalf of The American People Committee. She solicited it on behalf of Cory, who was bundling her funds.
"This isn't one of my deals," Ramba said.