MIami-Dade's Pets Trust group is under scrutiny for its organizers' central role in mounting a challenge to incumbent county commissioner Jose "Pepe" Diaz.
A state elections complaint filed this week by lawyer J.C. Planas accuses organizers of violating dislclosure laws by switching their campaign activities from a political-action committee, which must report contributions and expenses during the election, to a non-profit, which doesn't.
The complaint to the Florida Elections Commission formalizes an argument Diaz's campaign has been making in recent weeks against Pets' Trust founder Michael Rosenberg.
Rosenberg's new group, Pets' Voice, funded the television campaign soliciting candidates to run against Diaz, a three-term incumbent who last year rejected a call to raise taxes to fund more animal services. Marjorie Figueira, a retired schools administrator, responded to the ad is now Diaz's lone opponent for the District 12 commission race in Miami-Dade.
Thursday night, Rosenberg forwarded to Naked Politics an email he sent to a Florida elections official summarizing his approach. Pets' Voice, a non-profit under the 501c4 federal tax code, is funding the campaign efforts but the spending will make up only a portion of the organization's overall mission to help pets.
In an email to us, Rosenberg wrote that his group was advised "that the 501c4 can support and endorse candidates, as long as it is not the main goal. We endorsed Philip Levine for Mayor of Miami Beach....and we endorsed Jeff Porter for Mayor of Homestead. Both mayors told us our network of people helped hugely in their victories."
Rosenberg also offered to show Naked Politics a list of contributions through the Pets' Voice online PayPal account. The offer was accepted, and we'll report back once that happens.
The dispute falls into the (ahem) fuzzy territory involving 501c4s, a category of non-profits known as social-welfare organizations. Political groups increasingly use them across the country to fund activities, in part thanks to restrictions being lifted by the 2010 Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court.
Planas filed his complaint against Pets' Voice, which Rosenberg formed in June 2013 after disbanding a Miami-Dade political committee by the same name. Pets' Voice funded the ad that prompted Figueira's candidacy, along with a string of anti-Diaz mailers cited in the Planas complaint. One Pets' Voice commercial urges viewers to "send Pepe packing" and elect Figueira instead.
Planas, a former state representative, argued that Pets' Voice must follow disclosure laws given its heavy spending and support of Figueira.
"The purpose behind Florida's Campaign Finance and Disclosure laws are to provide voters information as to where campaign money comes from," Planas wrote. He concluded by saying the commission "should do all possible to enjoin Pets' Voice from continuing to violate the law."
Rosenberg said the group switched to a 501c4 in order to pursue a broader mission beyond local politics, including pushing for state legislation.