Mystery group behind ads in 2020 Central Florida primary must reveal donors, rules rule – Orlando Sentinel
A group that sent attack ads into a Central Florida state Senate primary without disclosing its donors, listing only a “starting balance” of $250,000 in its reports to the state, must reveal its contributors and make its president available for deposition, a South Florida judge ruled Wednesday.
Although political committees are required to publicly list their contributions, Floridians for Equality and Justice reported only one contribution to the Florida Division of Elections, a “starting balance” of $249,925. of a non-profit organization of the same name.
A complaint filed in August 2020 by Florida State Senator Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, alleges that the committee violated state laws by sending advertisements to voters in Seminole and Volusia counties ahead of the primary. of August 2020 for Senate District 9 without disclosing its contributors. Taddeo sought to depose Floridians for Equality and Justice President Stephen Jones and obtain the group’s bank statements.
Aliette Rodz, an attorney representing Floridians for Equality and Justice, asked Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jose Rodriguez to dismiss Taddeo’s motion, describing the lawsuit as a “fishing expedition” during a hearing in March.
But Rodriguez dismissed that claim, saying the documents Taddeo is looking for, including bank records, exist and are in the possession of the committee. The judge gave Jones 30 days to turn over the records.
Taddeo’s lawsuit was set to be dismissed last fall after Taddeo and his lawyers couldn’t find Jones to serve the lawsuit on him. But Rodriguez allowed him to try again after the Orlando Sentinel revealed that Jones is the son of Stafford Jones, who works closely with Data Targeting, a major GOP consulting firm that oversaw Republican Senate campaigns in 2020. .
Data Targeting was simultaneously paying former state senator Frank Artiles $15,000 a month to work on the South Florida Senate races. Artiles was arrested last year and accused of paying a friend nearly $45,000 to run as an independent ‘ghost’ candidate in a Miami-area Senate race in an effort to hijack the votes of the Democrat in the race.
Ads sent out by Floridians for Equailty and Justice urged Democratic voters to reject frontrunner and eventual candidate Patricia Sigman in favor of opponent Rick Ashby, describing him as a ‘warrior of justice’ and a ‘true progressive’ . Sigman won the primary but ultimately lost to Republican Jason Brodeur in the general election.
Taddeo’s complaint said she believed the committee had received donations “through or on behalf of another,” a violation of state election laws, which require groups to report contributions and detailed expenses.
Sigman welcomed the judge’s order on Wednesday, saying the courts are “the essential check and balance against the black money tricks that are running amok.”
“Today’s court order separates the black money curtain so the sun can shine on this voter-cheating black money stuff,” Sigman wrote in a text message. “Those in power who run the government of Florida have shown no interest in ending these deceptive election practices that mislead Florida voters.”
Floridians for Equality and Justice are not done fighting Taddeo’s lawsuit, wrote Benjamin Gibson, a lawyer with the law firm representing the group.
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“We strongly disagree with the judge’s order today for both procedural and legal reasons,” Gibson wrote. “This case is not over, and Floridians for Equality and Justice will pursue all of its legal options to avoid this politically motivated fishing expedition designed to resuscitate Senator Taddeo’s failed gubernatorial campaign.”
In the general election, the Central Florida State Senate race was also one of three in the state where independent candidates who did not campaign were promoted by mailers funded by another group to black money nonprofit run by political consultants working closely with Florida Power & Light executives. .
Artiles has pleaded not guilty to bribing his friend to run for office in South Florida and no one has been charged in connection with the Central Florida race.
The Florida Elections Commission resolved a complaint in November that alleged multiple violations by Floridians for Equality and Justice with a settlement agreement that included a $250 fine for violating a law involving missing information in one of its initial registration forms.
The settlement agreement stipulated that the group was allowed to avoid disclosing its donors because it had begun engaging in election-related activities long enough before the August 18, 2020 primary elections to not have to declare its donors. state finance.
By the time the election got close enough that the group needed to start filing reports, it had already raised its money – and so the initial campaign finance report calling for a ‘starting balance’ complied Florida laws, class attorneys successfully argued.