Democratic and Republican political campaign experts, lobbyists, politicians, attorneys, and others are stunned and outraged after learning taxpayer-paid government officials in the administration of Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis have reportedly been soliciting donations for his presidential campaign, in violation of longstanding expectations of a firm wall between a political leader’s work as an elected public servant, and their political campaign machine.
“Whoever is telling these kids to do this has lost their damn mind,” a Florida Republican lobbyist told NBC News, which broke the bombshell story late Thursday night.
The solicitations from DeSantis government officials are in the form of personal text messages to Florida lobbyists, “a breach of traditional norms that has raised ethical and legal questions and left many here in the state capital shocked,” NBC News reports, adding that it was seen as “jaw-dropping.”
“It is walking a very close line to what is ethical and possibly legal,” a Florida lobbyist told NBC News. “It is state employees leveraging their official position to ask people whose livelihood depend on access to state government for money.”
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“Using a bundle code makes it look like certain employees get credit with the campaign,” that same lobbyist added, calling it “very questionable.”
“If any of my clients had legislative staff sending out donation links, we would be having a hard conversation,” a Republican fundraiser who works on federal elections said.
NBC News says the “legality of the solicitations depends on a series of factors, including whether they were sent on state-owned phones, or if they were sent on state property.”
At the federal level, with the exception of the President and Vice President, elected and government officials are banned from soliciting donations or campaigning on government property, including in government buildings, such as Congress or the White House.
U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) was formally admonished in March by the Senate Ethics Committee for violating ethics rules and standards by repeatedly soliciting campaign donations during an interview at the Capitol. It was not the first time he “directly solicited campaign contributions,” the Committee noted.
A longtime Florida election law attorney told NBC News, “At a minimum, even if they are sitting in their home at 9 p.m. using their personal phone and contacting lobbyists that they somehow magically met in their personal capacity and not through their role in the governor’s office, it still smells yucky.”
“There’s a misuse of public position issue here that is obvious to anyone paying attention,” they added.
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Pay-to-play, as some might call DeSantis’ actions, apparently has been part of the Florida GOP Governor’s playbook for years.
“Since assuming office in 2019,” The Tampa Bay Times reported this past October, “DeSantis has accepted roughly $3.3 million in campaign donations from about 250 people he selected for leadership roles,” referring to government jobs. The Times called it “a 75% increase in the number of donors appointed compared to former Gov. Rick Scott’s first term in office, and over 10 times the amount of money.”
The Miami Herald at the time spoke with Kedric Payne, vice president and general counsel with the Campaign Legal Center, who noted appointing donors is a typical practice.
“The public perceives this to be pay to play,” Payne told The Herald. “It’s perceived to be a contribution given with a wink and a nod to get the appointment.”
Orlando Sentinel Capital bureau reporter Jeffrey Schweers calls the NBC report “huge,” and says “the implications are staggering.”
Matt Dixon, the NBC News reporter and co-author of the bombshell report, observed on Twitter, “The $117b state budget and several bills remain on DeSantis desk.”
“That’s a lot of leverage, and those who got the texts are feeling pressure,” he noted. “Beyond that, it’s just so drastically beyond the norm. Taxpayer funded staff asking lobbyists for political $ isn’t how it usually works.”
Jay Nordlinger, a senior editor at the right-wing National Review, tweeted, “Frankly, I didn’t know this was a matter of ‘norms’; I thought it was a matter of law. Something to keep an eye on.”
Former federal prosecutor in the U.S. Dept. of Justice’s fraud division, Andrew Warren, currently a Florida state attorney who was suspended by DeSantis, had strong words in response to NBC’s reporting.
“Florida government officials on taxpayer salaries are raising money for DeSantis campaign from companies doing business with his administration. This is corruption—plain & simple. But what else should we expect from a Governor who flaunts the rule of law?”
Warren is challenging DeSantis’ suspension in court.
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Rick Wilson, the well-known political strategist and now-former Republican who has worked in politics since 1988, blasted DeSantis.
“The stories of @RonDeSantis GOVERNMENT staff…not campaign, GOVERNMENT staff soliciting Florida lobbyists for money for his Presidential campaign should draw the immediate attention of the Department of Justice,” he tweeted Friday morning. “This is Putinesque kleptocracy.”
“Here’s why the quid pro quo is so outrageous,” he noted. “DeSantis has yet to sign the state budget.”
Indeed, NBC News “spoke with 10 Republican lobbyists in Florida, all of whom said they couldn’t remember being solicited for donations so overtly by administration officials — especially at a time when the governor still has to act on the state budget.”
“That process that involves DeSantis using his line-item veto pen to slash funding for projects that the same lobbyists whom they are asking for political cash have a professional stake in. Most of the lobbyists said they felt pressure to give to the governor’s campaign.”
Florida Democratic Party chair Nikki Fried, who ran in the 2022 gubernatorial primary but lost to Charlie Crist, responded to Wilson on Twitter, charging, “This is also how he [DeSantis] strong armed the endorsement of members of the legislature.”
“It’s not just the lobbyists they’re extorting,” Democratic former state lawmaker Carlos Guillermo Smith, a current state senate candidate, alleged via Twitter. “Ron DeSantis got 99 Florida Republican lawmakers to sign endorsement agreements before budget vetoes were announced. Using fear, intimidation, and threats of retribution is all they know how to do.”