Loophole Allows Florida GOP to Keep Credit Card Expenses Secret

Delmar Johnson
Former Republican Party of Florida Executive Director Delmar Johnson has generated controversy because of his lavish spending on a GOP credit card.
TAMPA (2010-2-12) -

The Republican Party of Florida says it legally is not required to release credit card statements of its expenditures. But is that true?

By now, you’ve probably heard about the ongoing controversy involving the RPOF and credit cards. Top lawmakers, the party chairman and former Executive Director Delmar Johnson all used the cards to charge up hundreds of thousands in expenses – paid for by party donors.

Some of those expenses were leaked to the media. But most haven’t, and party leaders say they legally have no obligation to open their books.

The rule of thumb in election finances is that when you get money, or spend money, you have to disclose it. But in this case, there are loopholes.

Stetson University political science professor T. Wayne Bailey says campaign finances are the most dangerous aspect of politics.

Bailey also is a Democratic state party official – so he understands how the current system of disclosure got started.

“Many years ago this system was very weak and candidates were permitted to collect money and essentially mix those campaign funds with expenditures on their own personal habits,” he said.

Now, both state and federal law insist the funds be separated out very clearly and accounted for in full expenditure disclosure.

But that only applies to political candidates and political committees. It turns out that parties have their own special rules.

We asked the Florida Secretary of State’s office why parties are not being required to give up these credit card receipts.

We even found part of the law that says that political parties must turn over their credit card receipts to the Secretary of State, and therefore the public.

"A copy of each credit card statement which shall be included in the next report following receipt thereof by the candidate or political committee," the law says.

But because of the way state election officials are interpreting the law, party officials aren't being required to turn over the actual credit card receipts. Instead, they enter the expenditures on an electronic form.

And party officials are only putting down some of those expenses on those public forms, because of another legal interpretation by state officials.

They divide party spending into two categories: spending meant to influence an election, and spending that doesn’t influence an election.

If the spending doesn’t influence an election, political parties don’t have to report it.

That leads to the question, since it’s a political party, isn’t all their spending supposed to influence elections?

According to state election officials, no. State law defines contributions as "made for the purpose of influencing the results of an election."

In a 1976 case, the state Division of Elections issued an advisory opinion saying that a donation for a new Democratic Party state headquarters did not influence the results of an election, and therefore did not need to be reported.

And last year, the Secretary of State told the Ecology Party of Florida that they could spend money opposing a proposed nuclear power plant without reporting it.

So who determines whether it’s a campaign expenditure, or something other? That’s the party itself.

The only way state officials can find out if there’s some sort of violation would be if an internal whistleblower files a complaint. Otherwise, we just have to trust party officials to do the right thing.

That’s why some Republicans, such as state Senator Paula Dockery, want the party to open their books entirely.

But former state Senate President Tom Lee says opening the party’s books would be a huge mistake.

“As much as I have been a staunch supporter of transparency and ethics reform, I think they’re on a very slippery slope as a private corporation opening up their expenditures which are really the responsibility of the executive committee and their leadership,” Lee said.

Lee was in charge during Jeb Bush’s administration, and he did have one of those credit cards.

But he also pushed through ethics reforms for state senators, and he says he put controls in place to make sure party money was spent wisely.

He says it’s difficult for the average person to understand party politics.

“There is simply no way to explain to people who are struggling to put beans on the table right now that their elected officials are out gallivanting around raising six figure sums at posh restaurants and sporting events around the country. That is the reality but it is a difficult thing to explain,” he said.

So is this the end of it? It’s legal for the party to keep its credit card statements secret and that’s that?

Actually, the political science professor, Bailey, doesn’t think so. He says state law isn’t being properly enforced.

He raises this question: If these lawmakers and party officials aren’t spending money on electing people, are they spending it on themselves? If so, isn’t that like a gift or income that should be reported to the IRS?

Bailey said this issue will become more important now that corporations have free reign to spend more on political races.

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