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‘I could sell golf’: How DeSantis and aides courted lobbyists for campaign cash

When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis took office in 2019, his political team made a list of the state’s top 40 lobbyists and about 100 of their “Suggested Clients to target” for political contributions, according to a fundraising document reviewed by The Washington Post.

Next to the name of each lobbyist was a dollar figure, an “ask” that the DeSantis team hoped they would raise based on their book of clients, whose names were also listed in the document and included large corporations such as Disney and Motorola, as well as sports organizations, billionaires and interest groups with extensive business before the state.

The Florida governor’s fundraisers hoped that nine lobbyists would raise at least $1 million each for DeSantis’s political action committee, the state and the Republican Governors Association, according to the document, which was drafted by Heather Barker, a top DeSantis aide and his primary fundraiser, and shared with others.

To help them haul in large sums of money, the document suggested that lobbyists be allowed to offer their clients certain perks, such as meals and rounds of golf with DeSantis, who loves the sport. DeSantis’s fundraisers envisioned that some golf outings with the governor would net contributions of $75,000 or more, according to other emails among DeSantis’s political advisers.

“I could sell golf for $50k this morning,” Barker wrote to other DeSantis aides in a 2019 email obtained by The Post, noting that a prominent Tallahassee lobbyist and his wife wanted to play golf with the recently elected DeSantis and first lady Casey DeSantis at a course the governor favored. The lobbyist would “get money through a client” to contribute in exchange for golfing with DeSantis, she wrote. It is unclear if the meeting happened. Barker did not respond to a request for comment.

The 2019 document detailed other avenues for securing contributions. “METHODS FOR FIRMS TO DELIVER SUPPORT: Golf, lunch, meetings, dinner, tours, events, etc. — Each have a threshold (ex. Golf $25k per person, which is a deal),” reads the document, whose authenticity was confirmed by multiple people with knowledge of it. Like others interviewed for this story, the people spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

While it is common for politicians to seek donations from lobbyists, the efforts by DeSantis to effectively auction off his leisure time to those seeking to influence state policy created a special pathway of access for wealthy donors to the governor that is striking in the way that it was documented in writing, ethics experts said. The golf-related fundraising was part of a broader push by DeSantis to cultivate relationships with big contributors, some of whom have received state appointments or benefited from state policies, as The Post has previously reported.

Now a candidate for president, DeSantis’s close ties with donors could undermine his attempt to portray himself as someone who would do a better job taking on special interests than former president Donald Trump, the polling leader in the GOP race. “We’ve drained the swamp in here,” he said in a recent Fox News interview about his time as governor in Florida. “One of the things he did not do was drain the swamp.”

People familiar with the governor’s fundraising described the operation as one that included direct involvement by the governor. DeSantis made some calls to lobbyists, the documents show, and often took meetings that were orchestrated by the team, which was run by political aides to the governor.

DeSantis was personally briefed about the broad fundraising effort and approved it, according to multiple people with direct knowledge of the program. Documents reviewed by The Post show DeSantis was provided updates in writing about how much money lobbyists had raised from which clients.

A spokesman for DeSantis said campaign contributions did not determine his policies and there was nothing unusual about his fundraising operation.

“Despite the Washington Post’s best efforts to sensationalize standard fundraising practices, donors never have and never will dictate policy for Ron DeSantis — just ask Disney,” the campaign spokesman, Andrew Romeo, said in a statement, referring to the entertainment giant that donated at least $100,000 to DeSantis’s PAC before clashing with the governor over his legislation restricting classroom discussions of gender identity and sexual orientation.

The DeSantis team’s plans to fundraise off golf first surfaced in a 2019 report in the Tampa Bay Times. But the fundraising goals set for individual lobbyists based on their clients, along with details of how the effort was carried out and the governor’s direct knowledge of it have not been previously reported.

DeSantis’s team sought to take advantage of his special fondness for golf for political fundraising, according to the documents and interviews. A state party credit card was on file to cover fees and meals in at least one club where they played, and lobbyists were told he preferred certain courses.

DeSantis told advisers that he wanted to play a particular set of courses in Florida and across the country, people formerly in his orbit said. He preferred two courses in the Tallahassee area called Golden Eagle and Glen Arven, a private course just across the Georgia line. DeSantis came to Glen Arven without being a member so many times early in his governorship that a club official called a DeSantis adviser and asked the governor to curb his visits or join the club, according to three people with knowledge of the matter. He did not join the club.

The club’s golf professional did not respond to a request for comment. Asked about the incident, Romeo, the DeSantis campaign spokesman, called it “fake news.”

One lobbyist involved in the fundraising effort said clients wanted to golf with DeSantis because it guaranteed them hours of face time with the governor. “It’s about getting your phone calls returned and having the ability to make asks,” the lobbyist said, explaining why so many participated. “You want to engender access and goodwill with the governor.”

More broadly, the documents and interviews provide an extraordinary glimpse of how DeSantis and his team interacted with big donors, as they appeared to sell his personal time to political contributors. They included some of Florida’s biggest corporations, including some companies that went on to win favorable policy changes from DeSantis’s administration.

WellCare, a prominent health care company, agreed to give $50,000 in the early days of the governor’s administration, an email from Barker shows, but the CEO wanted to see the governor. A lunch was planned. “The CEO of Wellcare must hand deliver the check prior to session,” an email from Barker, the fundraiser, reads. The company did not respond to a request for comment. It is unclear if the lunch happened.

A lobbyist for the sugar industry requested a dinner with DeSantis for a $50,000 donation, according to an email Barker sent to her colleagues. DeSantis had clashed with the sugar industry, but Barker noted that the lobbyist had raised money for DeSantis, including $200,000 she said came from the sugar industry. It is unclear if the dinner happened.

The documents and interviews show how personally involved DeSantis was with the operation. One 2019 memo described that he had made eight calls to lobbyists to secure their fundraising commitments already and planned others. The document stressed the importance of solicitations directly from the governor. It continued that the DeSantis’s team would check in quarterly with lobbyists and apply “pressure” if they were not meeting goals — and that each lobbyist would be tracked.

The 2019 document noted that some contributions were sent to the Republican Governors Association, which contributed more than $14 million to DeSantis’s PAC in 2022, even though his reelection campaign was already well-funded and wasn’t as competitive as some of the RGA’s highest priorities.

Lobbyists often collect contributions from clients and other donors, a fundraising practice known as bundling. At the federal level, registered lobbyists have to disclose bundling, but they are not required to do so under Florida law, meaning bundled contributions are not traceable in public filings.

Many of the major corporations from which DeSantis’s team hoped lobbyists would collect money from have been frequent political donors in Florida, according to required financial disclosures. DeSantis advisers said in internal documents that many of the “targets” would be giving to other politicians.

But two lobbyists who said they had also been approached for donations by the political teams of former governors said DeSantis had more ambitious financial goals.

The lobbyists DeSantis’s team sought to target were some of the most influential in Florida. For example, the documents show fundraisers hoped both Brian Ballard and Nick Iarossi, two prominent lobbyists who represent a wide swath of business interests in Tallahassee, would each raise $1 million in 2019.

Both men have raised money for DeSantis and advised him at times while lobbying his administration and state lawmakers for hundreds of clients. Ballard has also advised and, in the past, worked for Trump. Both were identified as “co-chairs” for DeSantis’s second inaugural this year, meaning they bundled at least $1 million.

Seven other lobbyists were asked to raise $1 million each, the document shows. Six lobbyists were asked to raise $500,000 in 2019, and 14 were asked to bring in $250,000 each. Eight were asked for $100,000 and three were asked for $50,000, according to the document. The goal was about $18 million in 2019.

Lobbyists said the contributions were not necessarily a guarantee of favorable treatment by state government. One lobbyist who participated in raising money said there was an understanding that they and their clients would have less access to the governor and his team if they did not participate. “It was the price of admission,” this lobbyist said, describing the person’s opinion.

At times, DeSantis angered some of the lobbyists by making moves that hurt their clients. For example, the documents show that fundraisers hoped the Florida Justice Association, a trial lawyers association, would raise $3 million. Fundraising records show the trial lawyers did not make contributions nearing that amount, and the governor went on to pursue policies that trial lawyers and consumer advocates viewed as unfriendly, such as tort overhaul policies.

Ethics experts said the arrangements, while perhaps unseemly, would not violate Florida law in the absence of an explicit promise for official favors in exchange for money. A state ban on gifts to public officials contains a carve-out for political contributions, and there is no cap on those contributions.

“Florida is kind of the Wild West right now in terms of campaign finance. There’s not much you can’t do,” said Roger Austin, a professor of campaign management at the University of Florida.

Anthony Alfieri, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law, said if clients or lobbyists received more access because they gave money, it would not be illegal, but it would “offend basic notions of evenhanded fairness.”

“Such fundraising-driven preference schemes distort policy and governance decisions by favoring the narrow business interests of firms over the broad public interests of Florida citizens,” he said.

Some of the clients from which lobbyists were expected to collect donations later had policy wins from DeSantis’s administration. The 2019 document noted significant targets, for instance, from electric companies Florida Power & Light, Duke Energy and TECO. Those companies donated to DeSantis-aligned groups, and their requests to raise rates on customers were later approved by a utility commission whose members were appointed by DeSantis.

For FPL, the rate increase amounted to a record-setting almost $5 billion over five years, borne mostly by residential customers while subsidizing commercial and industrial businesses. DeSantis also signed legislation protecting major utilities from lawsuits by customers who experienced hurricane-related power outages. In 2019 he appointed FPL’s chief executive to the Florida University System’s board of governors and the company’s lobbyist, John Holley, to the state’s athletic commission. Holley referred questions to a company spokesman, who declined to comment. Duke Energy and TECO did not respond to requests for comment.

Other contributions were made by Centene, a health care company with extensive contracts in Florida and around the country. The company was listed on the document as committing $100,000 in 2019 — and has subsequently given more, state records show. The company is bidding for a large contract in Florida. The company did not respond to requests for comment.

The 2019 document also suggested donations be sought from GEO Group, which operates prisons in the state, and property insurers that went on to receive a taxpayer-funded relief program. Others mentioned included FanDuel and DraftKings, the online sports betting platforms that were then trying to expand through state-level regulation. The companies did not respond to requests for comment. The insurers and the sports betting companies contributed to the state party. GEO Group made major donations to the RGA.

One of DeSantis’s biggest backers, home builder Mori Hosseini, brought DeSantis to play at Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters golf tournament, and then furnished the governor’s mansion with a golf simulator for DeSantis’s use. Hosseini later received fast-track treatment from the DeSantis administration for a highway interchange benefiting one of his projects.

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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