In the conservative Florida Legislature, Rep. Marlene O’Toole, R-Lady Lake, has an undisputed reputation for fiscal austerity.
None other than Americans for Prosperity, the conservative group founded by billionaire libertarian brothers David and Charles Koch, gave O’Toole an A+ rating in June, establishing her as the gold standard for a group that says it prizes “free markets over cronysim.”
Yet even this group questions O’Toole’s dual roles as chief operating officer of a nonprofit and vice chair of the House education appropriations committee that approved $6 million for the same Miami nonprofit in this year’s budget.
Take Stock in Children was awarded an additional $9.1 million from the state’s $200 million mortgage settlement. O’Toole, a former IBM executive with a thick Boston accent, voted on both matters.
In neither case did she disclose she’s paid $50,000 a year by the group.
“It seems the proper thing to do in this case would have been to identify that you have this role with this group,” said Slade O’Brien, the Florida director for Americans for Prosperity. “Or recuse yourself from the vote.”
Getting an explanation from O’Toole, 68, isn’t easy.
On June 24, O’Toole was first contacted by the Times/Herald. Three weeks later she said she would respond to written questions, but after she was sent several on July 9, she didn’t respond to them until Monday.
She replied that her salary is “not paid for out of funds provided by the State of Florida to Take Stock in Children, but out of private dollars that are raised by that organization to assist with management and oversight.”
Further, she downplayed her role as vice chair of the education appropriations committee.
“My role was the same as all other members of the subcommittee,” O’Toole wrote in an email. “Worksheets were presented, line items were vetted and evaluated, and the subcommittee submitted recommendations to the appropriations chair.”
From the very beginning of the budget process earlier this year, O’Toole’s committee was proposing to spend $6 million on Take Stock in Children. Throughout, O’Toole didn’t publicly disclose that she was getting paid $50,000 by the group.
During a March 27 education appropriations meeting in which it was announced that $6 million had been set aside for TSIC, O’Toole lauded the budget process as a tough, but fair one without mentioning her other job.
“I just wanted to congratulate Chairman (Erik) Fresen,” O’Toole said. “I think it’s easier when there’s no money because it’s simple no for everybody. When you have little money, you have to really dig in deeper and understand every single aspect of this budget to make sure you’re being fair. So I want to congratulate him because he’s done a very good job with the help of everyone on this committee. I’m kind of excited for us to have growth for a change. We still have work to do...as we go forward, there’s still some negotiations.”
Indeed. The Senate was only proposing $4.8 million for the group.
Asked what her role was in further negotiations, O’Toole replied that “as is standard operating procedure, our chairman Erik Fresen was responsible for budget negotiations with the Senate and House leadership beyond the initial working process.”
Even those deciding how much Take Stock in Children was to receive say they didn’t know about O’Toole’s job with the group.
“I really didn’t know her relationship with Take Stock in Children,” said Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who was chair of the Senate’s education appropriations committee. “I don’t think it would have changed my support for it, but, yeah, I’d like to know as much as I can.”
One question O’Toole wouldn’t answer, after repeated attempts, was if, how and when she first disclosed her job with Take Stock in Children.
In the clerk’s manual, she lists her affiliation with Take Stock in Children as “mentor.”
In her first financial disclosure in 2008, she lists Take Stock in Children for her $47,000 income.
Beginning with her 2010 disclosure, however, she lists her income as coming only from “TSIC.”
On Monday, O’Toole would only say that “I did disclose my role with TSIC with House Counsel and was told that based on my responsibilities with organization that the position would not create a conflict with the performance of my duties as a legislator.”
O’Toole said that, “in an abundance of caution”, she did file a written disclosure to Bob Ward, the clerk of the Florida House, in a letter dated Aug. 29. More than two months after she was first contacted by the Times/Herald, O’Toole disclosed she voted for the appropriations for Take Stock in Children in both the budget and the mortgage settlement this year. (She doesn’t mention the previous years she voted for appropriations for TSIC).
“I wish to advise you, the members of the Florida House of Representatives, and the public that I am employed by Take Stock in Children,” O’Toole wrote in the letter. “However, my salary is not paid from funds provided by the state of Florida to Take Stock in Children.”
She states in the letter that she was “advised” that she was required to vote on the bills.
Here's the letter: