When Gov. Rick Scott peered up at the House visitors' gallery in his State of the State speech last week, he saw his wife Ann, their daughters, sons-in-law and grandchildren. Seated close by and joining in the applause was Mike Fernandez, a wealthy Cuban-American health care executive from Coral Gables and one of Scott's leading fund-raisers.
Fernandez has donated $1 million to Scott's campaign and serves as its co-finance chairman, and he has lucrative contracts under the state's Medicaid managed care program. In separate interviews, Scott and Fernandez said the contributions and contracts have no relation to each other.
"Whatever business Mike does with the state of Florida, he does on his own," Scott said. "He believes in what I'm doing. He believes in good government. If you listen to his story, he was escorted out of Cuba on a government plane ... He believes in the dream of America, which is what I believe in."
Of course, not everyone will believe that, and a $1 million check from Fernandez to Scott's Let's Get to Work committee won't end the talk. The mere size of the donation invites cynicism (all told, Fernandez has given $1.25 million to Let's Get to Work).
The Florida Democratic Party put out a statement Monday that said: "It really pays off to be Rick Scott's top campaign donor." in response to a Herald/Times report that Fernandez will soon host a $25,000-a-head Scott event at his South Florida mansion -- with Mitt Romney.
Fernandez said his companies have had Medicaid contracts with the state dating to 1989. "It is a fair process. We have to compete fairly," he said. "The company that I invest in did not win every region that we wanted to get. Others got more, others got less. I got less than I hoped for. There was no favoritism involved."
"I think it will be a $100 million race," Fernandez said of Scott's re-election campaign, "and we are ready for that." He described the Scott re-election effort as a "well-oiled machine," but a transaction that quietly took place late last week revealed some tinkering in Scott campaign world.
On March 6, Scott converted Let's Get To Work from an electioneering communications organization (ECO) to a political committee (PC) by shifting $27 million into the new account and putting the ECO out of business (but keeping the same web site, www.letsgettowork.net).
Under Florida campaign finance laws, a political committee has more flexibility than an ECO. A PC can "directly advocate" on Scott's behalf; an ECO can't.
But other factors may be in play: a political committee can make unlimited donations to a political party and an ECO can't. And when a political party buys ad time on behalf of a candidate, it can buy it at a lower cost than an ECO can. There has been talk in Tallahassee that some Let's Get to Work donors may have been surprised they were writing checks to an electioneering committee with limits on its flexibility. (Democrat Charlie Crist's soft-money machine is a political committee).
"It just made more sense for us," said lawyer John French, who manages Let's Get to Work. "From the public's perspective, it's a change of hats."