Builder groups skirt campaign laws, state says
Lobbyists accused of push into local races statewide
Article Courtesy of Times-Union

Saturday, June 8, 2002
By Steve Patterson 
Times-Union staff writer 

Jacksonville's home-building lobby is facing state charges that it funneled illegal campaign contributions to politicians hundreds of miles away.

The Northeast Florida Builders Association's political committee is among 13 builder organizations the Florida Elections Commission has accused of breaking campaign finance laws. Several committees could face fines of a few thousand dollars or more.

A lawyer representing the builder organizations said elections officials were grasping at straws and he would fight the charges at a hearing. The lawyer, John French, conceded an interoffice e-mail about $1,500 sent from Jacksonville to Pensacola looked suspicious but blamed that on clumsy wording.

The charges involve the committees' efforts to coordinate donations to builder-friendly candidates in county commission and school district races, as well as the Legislature, during the 2000 elections.

In counties with key races, builders asked their counterparts across the state to send money to candidates who could be virtually unknown outside their hometowns. Builder committees also routinely transferred money to one another, sometimes while they were soliciting donations.

In findings filed by the elections commission, investigators argued the two practices illegally dodged a state law that limits each committee's contribution to $500 a candidate. In effect, the argument went, builders with a favorite candidate were mailing money to friends across the state, who then gave the cash to the candidate.

Political committees of all types have practiced similar tactics in state-level politics for years. But in 2000, the builders began to encourage involvement in purely local races.

The head of a Pensacola environmental group, Neighbors for a Quality Future, complained to the state about donations that an Escambia County builders committee arranged for candidates there.

The charges against the Northeast Florida committee quote an October 2000 e-mail the executive director of the Pensacola builders' association sent to his Jacksonville counterpart, Arnold Tritt.

"Will you do a PAC transfer with me? I need $500 checks for the following," read the message from David Peaden at the Building Industry Association of West Florida. Peaden then listed three candidates running for the Escambia County Commission, the county school superintendent's job and the House of Representatives. "Give me the name to [of] your PAC and I'll send you a $1,500 contribution," the charge sheet quotes Peaden's e-mail as saying.

The Northeast Florida committee gave $500 to each of Peaden's candidates. Two days later, the Pensacola committee gave identical contributions and also gave $1,500 to the Northeast Florida committee.

Tritt yesterday referred a reporter's questions to French, the building industry lawyer. Peaden didn't return a message left at his office.

French said he hadn't talked to Tritt about the e-mail message. He said Peaden told him the e-mail was a follow-up to a conversation with Tritt, where Peaden asked for donations and said he would try to send money to Jacksonville but couldn't guarantee it. He said the e-mail by itself "would create a fairly strong indication of a [campaign finance] violation," but that Peaden's explanation gave a credible and legal alternative interpretation. He said the e-mail was "rather ungraceful" but didn't prove wrongdoing.

The state charges also were brought against Jacksonville builder Howard White, a former president of the Northeast Florida association and former chairman of the political committee. State investigators had sent White a questionnaire asking him why the committee sent $500 to the campaign of a St. Lucie County Commission candidate and whether anyone from Jacksonville ever talked to the campaign. "His responses ... were variations of 'I don't know,'" the charges said. 

The charges said the candidate also was supported by the Pensacola committee, and that the Northeast Florida committee received $500 from Pensacola the same day the candidate received $500 from Jacksonville.

White didn't return a message left with a relative at his office yesterday.

French said state officials have built a circumstantial case that stretches the intent of the campaign finance laws.

Building industry members previously have defended their transfer of money between committees and insisted they didn't make any quid pro quo payments.

In 1999, the Times-Union showed that builder committees had sent each other $34,000 in the final two months of the 1998 elections, and that the committees regularly spent that money on candidates seeking office on the other side of the state.