Small house in Tampa ground zero for mega millions in campaign donations
A little over a year ago, no-party gubernatorial candidate Bud Chiles stood outside an off-white single-story building with a carefully manicured lawn in suburban Tampa and said, “This building behind me is ground zero for what’s wrong with Florida politics.”
The building’s address: 610 South Blvd., a designation found on the financial disclosure forms of countless political committees in Florida and all over the country. The unassuming building nestled in an unassuming neighborhood is a veritable political action committee mill, churning out millions of dollars and influencing elections all over the country.
The kicker: What is happening at 610 South Blvd. is completely legal.
Chiles — who eventually dropped out of the race and endorsed Democratic candidate Alex Sink — was echoing the thoughts of millions of Americans who feel that too much money goes into our country’s political system, and we know way too little about where it comes from.
610 South Blvd. provides insight into a commonly overlooked aspect of campaign financing: Because so few people understand the nuances of campaign money, politicians and activists have a limited number of places to turn to when starting a committee. That leads to a high concentration of candidates and committees at a few select addresses, none more infamous in Florida political circles than 610 South Blvd.
Nancy and Robert Watkins together run Robert Watkins and Co., the accounting firm located at 610. Thirty-nine political committees are currently registered under the address with the Federal Election Commission (FEC). The committees registered there have conservative leanings and ties exclusively to Republican politicians.
The organizations range from leadership PACs, 501(c)4s and 527s to campaign committee PACs and even a handful of Super PACs — a new and controversial type of PAC that allows groups to raise unlimited funds from corporations, individuals and unions. And these groups tend to bring in big money. In 2010, one of the Super PACs at 610 raised more than $4 million.
Watkins and Co. also has 19 state PAC clients filed with the Florida Division of Elections.
Nancy Watkins says her firm’s impressive number of clients exists because she has been in the business for more than 25 years. According to her, 610 South Blvd. is an “official address” for many groups “for a lot of reasons.” Mostly, she says, the firm provides a reliable and “durable mailing address” for all her clients.
Meredith McGehee — the policy director for The Campaign Legal Center**, **a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that works in the area of campaign finance and elections — tells The Florida Independent there are no rules against multiple PACs sharing an address.
McGehee calls the FEC’s rules for what passes as coordination among these groups “ridiculous,” and says that even if groups follow FEC rules, their activities would probably not “pass a smell test for regular people.” According to McGehee, as long as the groups do not coordinate with each other in a way that violates FEC laws, they can communicate, work together and share an address. She calls the FEC’s rules for what passes as coordination among these groups “ridiculous,” and says that even if groups follow FEC rules, their activities would probably not “pass a smell test for regular people.”
“The rules are so loose,” she says. “So there is a lot they can do. They can coordinate in common sense terms — just not legal terms.”
McGehee says these groups, for example, can share an office and “talk about general strategy” and still not violate FEC coordination rules.
Watkins says the fact that all her clients share her address “does not create a relationship between them.” She says everything done at her business is ethical, and that she does not talk to one client about another.
Federal policy-makers from all over the country turn to Watkins and Co. for their services. Former Sen. Mel Martinez and Reps. Katherine Harris, Rick Renzi and Pat Roberts are among those with ties to 610 South Blvd. In 2008, Mike Huckabee registered his Florida presidential campaign committee with the firm.
Most have created their own leadership PACs with the company. Leadership PACs are political action committees that “can be established by current and former members of Congress as well as other prominent political figures,” according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The Center, a nonpartisan research group, explains that “leadership PACs are designed for two things: to make money and to make friends. In the rough and tumble political game, elected officials know that money and friends in high places are very important to winning elections and leadership positions.”
Watkins and Co., however, are not only providing leadership PAC services for folks in D.C. The firm also houses the paperwork for a number of state PACs, or committees of continuous existence, associated with GOP members of the Florida Legislature. Steve Precourt, Ellyn Bogdanoff, Jack Latvala, Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, Anitere Flores, Steve Crisafulli and Kevin Ambler, to name a few, all run campaign finance activity through 610 South Blvd.
Furthermore, these state PACs associated with Florida legislators have raked in a lot of money. In the year 2011 alone, these committees have brought in about $400,000. Latvala’s PAC has raised about $230,000 this year.
The office building also serves as the home for four Super PACs, controversial independent expenditure-only committees. Super PACs are a new kind of political action committee created in the wake of the federal court case SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission, which loosened up previous campaign finance regulations.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Super PACs “may raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, associations and individuals, then spend unlimited sums to overtly advocate for or against political candidates.” Thanks to new rules, Super PACs can receive unlimited amounts of money from a corporation’s treasuries (i.e. profits), something that was previously illegal.
Super PACs do have to report their donors to the FEC on a monthly or quarterly basis; unlike traditional PACs, they cannot contribute money directly to political candidates.
As of Oct. 18, the Center for Responsive Politics reports that 156 committees are registered as Super PACs and have already “reported total expenditures of $2,596,787 in the 2012 cycle.”
The Super PACs listed under 610 South Blvd. include a conservative committee called the Coalition to Protect American Values; the Ending Spending Fund, a group that ran attack ads in Nevada against Harry Reid; the We Love USA PAC, a Super PAC famous for saying Obama is a “socialist” who “detests America”; and Dick Morris’ Super PAC for America. The Super PACs listed under 610 South Blvd. include a conservative committee called the Coalition to Protect American Values; the Ending Spending Fund, a group that ran attack ads in Nevada against Harry Reid; the We Love USA PAC, a Super PAC famous for saying Obama is a “socialist” who “detests America”; and Dick Morris’ Super PAC for America.
The firm is also contracted by more traditional PACs, such as the American Issues Project. The group is known for spending $3 million on ads during the 2008 election tying the former founder of the Weather Underground Bill Ayers to Barack Obama. Most recently, the group focused on attacking the president’s stimulus legislation in 2010.
Also at 610: Florida Working Families, a PAC funded primarily by Big Sugar, notorious for its significant political reach in Florida and all over the country. Working Families launched negative ads against Jim Davis, attacking him for missing a vote in support of Israel, and successfully attacked Mary Barley, an environmental activist who ran in the Democratic primary for agricultural commissioner in 2002.
Watkins and Co. also provides services to a PAC funded by developers, lobbyists, builder’s groups and the Florida Chamber of Commerce called Floridians for Smarter Growth. The group was among the political forces opposing last election’s Amendment 4, known as the “Hometown Democracy” amendment. According to Ballotpedia, the amendment “proposed requiring a taxpayer-funded referendum for all changes to local government comprehensive land-use plans.” Floridians for Smarter Growth launched a successful attack against the amendment and coined (.pdf) the phrase the “Vote on Everything Amendment.”
In total, about 50 different PACs get their financial assistance and guidance from Watkins and Co.
According to the IRS’ records of tax-exempt groups, there are also four 527s using the address. 527s are advocacy groups that electioneer, and spend millions on a variety of positions and issues. While they may not explicitly tell voters to cast their ballots for a specific candidate, they clearly affect the way voters see a candidate or issue.
Watkins and Co. also handles the finances for a handful of tax-exempt nonprofits, including 501(c)4 organization. New rules now allow these types of groups to spend the money they raise anonymously, because their “primary activity” is lobbying.
McGehee says these sorts of details “reveal how the system really works” in elections.
Most people, she says, have little to no participation in this part of the political process. “About ~~12~~ .08 percent of the population will spend more that $200 in an election cycle,” McGehee says.
Echoing Watkins, McGehee says that only a select few have the campaign finance expertise that Nancy and Robert Watkins provide, which contributes to the high number of clients 610 South Blvd. works with.
According to McGehee, there is also “a desire among these groups to know what everyone else is doing.” She says that is why the firm works exclusively with conservative groups and GOP policy-makers. ”It is rare that someone is serving both sides,” McGehee says. “It’s not accidental.”
The high concentration of key players in campaign financing — whether it is contributors or accountants — has led to a situation in which the political process is dominated by very few people. McGehee says that people have noticed, even though new rules have done nothing to correct the situation.
“There has always been this populist strain, whether its the tea party or Occupy Wall Street,” McGehee says, “that knows — and is angry about — our political system being dominated by monied interests.”
This report was produced as part of a collaborative investigative effort to expose the influence of corporate money on the political process by members of The Media Consortium, in partnership with the We the People Campaign. To read more stories from this series, visit CampaignCash.org or follow #CampaignCash on Twitter. Sign up for our Campaign Cash email newsletter by clicking here.