Multiple rounds of political attack ads filling Key Biscayne voter mailboxes are the subject of formal complaints with the Florida Elections Commission, made this week against three different political committees that have been active in the island’s contentious mayoral race.
The complaints, filed by attorney Eugene Stearns, allege each of the committees has failed to file financial disclosure information about donors and expenditures for mailers attacking candidates Fausto Gomez and Joe Rasco. In the filings, Stearns took aim mostly at Gomez, writing that Gomez can’t claim to be self-funding his campaign if third parties are supporting it.
“We don’t need this on our island,” Stearns said, adding that Gomez has falsely accused his law firm and daughter of being responsible for mailers against him.
Gomez declined to be interviewed, but issued a terse statement that described Stearns’ allegations as a “flight of fancy.”
Ads attacking Rasco were paid for “Key Biscayne Residents for Quality of Life.” That committee, formed to support Gomez by Tallahassee attorney Mark Herron, has not reported any contributions or expenditures. Another committee, also formed by Herron, “Coastal Beaches Matter,” placed ads supporting Gomez. It too has not filed detailed information about expenditures and contributions, the complaint alleges.
Herron, reached by telephone, declined to comment on the complaints other than to say that “the reason there is nothing in there is I haven’t received any bills to pay for the committee.”
A third committee, “Floridians for Truth Now,” is based in Fort Lauderdale. It sent mailers and a flier attacking Gomez. That committee was formed in February, long before any Key Biscayne candidate filed for office, documents show.
Stearns alleged that Floridians for Truth Now sent four mailers and a flier while only receiving one contribution of $4,500 during the mayoral primary and those funds were insufficient to pay for the expenditures. He also wrote: “some of the people making contributions do not seem to exist.”
Floridians for Truth Now, which is involved in two other non-local campaigns, is chaired by Willie Rumph, Jr. Rumph said Friday he had no knowledge of the allegations. In a brief conversation, he said he would respond to questions about the Key Biscayne mailers “very soon” but did not provide details about the expenditures or why they were made. He did not appear to recognize the name “Fausto Gomez” when asked.
Florida’s campaign finance reporting laws have often been criticized, especially the rules covering political committees. Transfers from one committee to another can effectively hide how campaign ads are bankrolled. Bills to tighten financial transfers have failed to advance in the Florida Legislature.
In the case of the $4,500 contribution made in August to the anti-Gomez committee, it’s hard to establish the source. That contribution came from another committee, Activate Florida, which in turn has raised $78,000 this year. Activate Florida has had many donors, with the largest contributions coming from attorney Justin Ishbia, listed by Forbes as a Chicago billionaire. A more recent contribution of the same amount — $4,500 — was made to Activate Florida by yet another committee, Floridians for Positive Change.
Political committees are not supposed to coordinate with candidates or campaigns.
The Elections Commission can fine up to $1,000 per violation, an agency spokesperson said. But proceedings are confidential until a determination of probable cause is made.
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Tony Winton is the editor-in-chief of the Key Biscayne Independent and president of Miami Fourth Estate, Inc. He worked previously at The Associated Press for three decades winning multiple Edward R. Murrow awards. He was president of the News Media Guild, a journalism union, for 10 years. Born in Chicago, he is a graduate of Columbia University. His interests are photography and technology, sailing, cooking, and science fiction.