Who's ad is it anyway?....Republican frontrunner for governor Adam Putnam hit the airwaves this month with a biographical ad that is meant to highlight his agricultural roots and his belief in faith and family.
But campaign records available so far show that the ad isn't being bankrolled by Putnam's campaign.
Instead Florida Grown, a political committee organized and controlled by the agriculture commissioner, has already paid nearly $1 million to Smart Media Group to purchase television time for the ad. That has been backed by FCC filings on file that show that the ad is being paid for by Florida Grown.
Ads on television have carried a disclaimer saying it was a paid political advertisement from Florida Grown.
Yet on Sunday, the Putnam campaign put out a fundraising pitch that says it's their ad and asked people to give them money to keep it on the air. There's a link to the ad on the Putnam for governor website. That version _ which is a full minute in length and not 30 seconds like the version shown on television _ has a disclaimer saying it was paid by the Adam Putnam for governor campaign.
So why is this important?
Well, the first is that Florida Grown can accept unlimited amounts from anyone, including corporate donors, while Putnam's actual campaign can only accept donations worth up to $3,000. So that means that it's harder to raise money for the actual campaign versus the political committee. And that's why there would be a desire to pay for television ads through the committee since those dollars are much easier to replace.
But while Florida law regarding political committees has loosened up in recent years there remain some restrictions on how those committees can spend money.
Florida does not have the same kind of federal restrictions that are supposed to limit contact and coordination between campaigns and other groups. Campaigns are allowed to work in tandem with committees regarding ads.
But the state's Division of Elections put out a very interesting opinion in 2016 that could have ramifications for the Putnam campaign.
Well-known attorney Ron Meyer, who does work on behalf of entities aligned with the Florida Education Association, asked that year about what kind of ads a political committee could undertake - including running television ads that refer or depict "a clearly identified candidate for office" that do not "expressly advocate" for that candidate but have no other reasonable interpretation "than an appeal to vote for or against a specific candidate."
In that opinion, the division stated that there are a type of ads that fall outside the normal definition of what constitutes a regulated ad. These are ads that are run outside a period of 30 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election. These ads are also coordinated with a campaign but do not expressly advocate someone's election. But here's the important part: Since these ads don't fall under the normal definition then a committee that does such ad could be contributing to a campaign.
If this opinion were applied to the Florida Grown ad, then it could be a problem especially since $1 million is way beyond the $3,000 contribution limit.
Under Florida law, campaigns that accept contributions above the legal limit can be susceptible to fines twice the amount of the contribution.
It is important to stress that this is an interpretation of existing law by the Division of Elections. But this speaks to the nature of Florida's complicated campaign finance laws and how they function - and just as important - what is the actual purpose of the law.
MYSTERY APPEAL...There was quite a bit of drama last week as it relates to Florida's automatic ban on civil rights for felons.
A federal appeals court late Wednesday agreed to place a stay on U.S. District Judge Mark Walker's ruling that maintained that Florida's current system for deciding who should have their rights restored is unconstitutional. Florida currently requires former prisoners to wait anywhere from five to seven years after they leave prison before they can ask to have their rights restored. Walker sided with former prisoners who had their applications denied. And as part of that ruling, Walker ordered the state to overhaul its rules by April 26.
Fearful that the appeals court would not act in time Gov. Rick Scott scheduled an emergency meeting of the state's clemency board (which consists of the governor and the three other elected Cabinet officials) with a potential new set of rules. The meeting was scrapped, however, when the court came down with its last-minute decision.
So here's the mystery then: Who gave the order for the clemency board to file the appeal and request the stay in the first place?
Here's the reason for that question: The lawsuit wasn't just against Scott or Attorney General Pam Bondi but it was a lawsuit against the clemency board itself. Florida's Sunshine Law does in general apply to meetings of the governor and Cabinet. (Clemency records are confidential, but there has not been an assertion that the board can meet in private.)
The state's solicitor general _ who works for Bondi _ filed the appeal and the stay request even though there was never a meeting of the clemency board to discuss or vote on what to do in the wake of the initial ruling.
And the state officials who sit on the clemency board have not given a lot of information on how this happened.
When first asked, Whitney Ray, a spokesman for Bondi said that "given the gravity of this issue, a decision to appeal was never in question."
Ok, but again - the solicitor general is an attorney who was working on behalf of the clemency board. Usually attorneys must confer with their clients before proceeding with major action such an an appeal.
During a public availability, Bondi herself refused to answer a question on the decision to appeal. She said that "we're not going to talk about pending litigation."
The press offices for both Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and Putnam also did not yield much information on the decision to appeal. Putnam's spokeswoman, Jennifer Meale, said that their office was "notified of the decision to appeal." Patronis's office said the CFO was "kept informed" by communication between the solicitor general and the general counsel for Patronis.
So in both instances neither official said they made an affirmative decision to appeal.
The only office to finally bring some light to the situation was Scott's office. John Tupps, a spokesman for Scott, said that the general counsel for the governor conferred with the solicitor general about the need for appeal.
And the governor's office maintains that such a move was legal even though it was done behind closed doors. They point to a 1978 case that is still cited in the Sunshine Manual that said it was ok for an attorney to confer with members of a board in reaching a decision to appeal.
But even if Scott and Bondi agreed to an appeal that's still just two out of four clemency board members.
Worth pointing out as well: Scott and the Cabinet were sued in 2015 for sidestepping the Sunshine Law because of the way then Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey was dismissed since he worked for all four officials not just the governor. In the end the case was settled, but only after the state agreed to pay attorney fees in the case and that senior staff and aides participate in mandatory Sunshine Law training.
Barbara Petersen of the First Amendment Foundation said that whole situation "doesn't pass the sniff test" and questions if the other members of the board have yielded all legal decisions to Scott's office.
One Democratic candidate for governor opposed to Florida's current system of handing rights restoration is also asking questions.
Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum last week filed a public records request that asked for any records related to the decision to appeal and file other legal motions in the case. In his letter seeking the records Gillum states "it is unclear the legality of whether the Solicitor General, at the discretion of the Governor, can decide to file a motion, or a series of motions, on behalf of all the Cabinet officers. Floridians deserve to know how their Cabinet officers agreed to a legal decision on behalf of the state of Florida."