Friday, September 21, 2018
  • The Buzz
  • From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Not everyone has a wife who gave him $1.5 million to run for Florida Attorney General. But Frank White does.

State Rep. Frank White, the sponsor of a measure to ban public campaign financing in Florida, is also a candidate for attorney general who has raised nearly 80 percent of his campaign funds from himself and his in-laws, a wealthy family who own a chain of car dealerships.

That includes a campaign contribution of $1.5 million from White himself, who used money his wife, Stephanie White, gave him shortly before he made the contribution.

If she gave him that money for the purpose of putting it into his campaign, according to campaign finance law experts, it could be illegal.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Florida Republicans are turning Attorney General contest into race to the right. 

The White campaign said the money came from a stock dividend Stephanie White received about a month before he donated it to his campaign.

But the campaign declined to answer questions about details of the transaction, including when she requested a cash payment of the dividend, or whether the purpose of putting the money into a joint account was to provide money for her husband's campaign.

Instead, Frank and Stephanie White said in an emailed statement, "We are incredibly blessed to have experienced such success individually and with our family business. Our three boys inspired our commitment to serving and we are willing to make the investments needed to run a successful campaign."

Frank White, a Pensacola Republican, has raised $1.9 million in his campaign fund since he filed in late 2016, plus another $197,500 in a separate political committee he controls, United Conservatives.

Of that total of about $2.1 million, about $1.7 million came from White himself, his wife's gift, and other contributions from members of her family and corporations associated with them, according to a Buzz analysis of campaign finance records.

Stephanie White is a member of the Sansing family of Pensacola, whose Sansing Automotive Group operates 11 car dealerships in northwest Florida, Alabama and Mississippi, according to its website.

Frank White is general counsel of the company.

He is also sponsor of House Joint Resolution 989, which would set a referendum on the 2018 ballot to abolish Florida's public campaign financing program.

That program, established by the Legislature in 1986 and placed in the Constitution after a statewide referendum in 1998, provides tax money to political candidates to match contributions they raise.

It was intended, the law states, to prevent the cost of running for office from limiting candidates to "those who are independently wealthy" or able to "appeal to special interest groups for campaign contributions."

It's aimed at candidates who raise money in small contributions, matching only donations of $250 or less. The maximum contribution allowed in a statewide race from someone other than the candidate is $3,000.

Candidates who seek public financing must first raise $100,000 for Cabinet offices including attorney general, or $150,000 for governor races, including no more than $25,000 of their personal money. They must agree to limit total campaign spending to $1 for each registered voter, or $2 in the governor's race.

The program has been unpopular among some Republicans, who call it "welfare for politicians," a phrase popularized by former Gov. Jeb Bush.

In 2014, it distributed $4.3 million, including $2.6 million to Democrat Charlie Crist for governor; $418,396 to Republican Jeff Atwater for chief financial officer; and in the attorney general's race, $300,424 to Democrat George Sheldon and $328,016 to Republican Pam Bondi.

This year, attorney general candidates White and Rep. Jay Fant, R-Jacksonville, are ineligible because they've exceeded the limit on personal money – Fant has loaned his campaign $750,000.

Two other Republican candidates, Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover, and former Hillsborough County Judge Ashley Moody, both said they haven't decided whether they'll seek public financing.

Spano and Fant both said they'll vote in favor of putting the issue on the ballot.

The bill has passed two House committees and second reading on the House floor, and could come up for House passage any time.

With House Speaker Richard Corcoran opposed to public financing, it has a good chance of getting the three-fifths vote necessary to pass the House, but there is no companion bill in the Senate, which makes its prospects dim.

White put the $1.5 million in his campaign account Oct. 27.

Campaign spokeswoman Erin Isaac said the $1.5 million came from stock dividend proceeds Stephanie White received in September from a company on whose board she sits, and that she then put the money into a joint checking account with her husband.

Under Florida law, a loan or gift of money to a candidate for office must be reported as a campaign contribution from the lender or giver, if its purpose is to influence the outcome of the election, said Tallahassee elections law expert Ron Meyer, who works for candidates of both parties.

"If she puts this money into their joint account for the purpose of him having money for his campaign, the intention becomes suspect," he said. "You can't give money to a campaign in the name of another person."

If the $1.5 million had been reported as a contribution from Stephanie White, it would violate the $3,000 limit on contributions, he noted.

Meyer said it could be difficult to prove the intent of a gift from a spouse to a candidate — "I would think the only ones aware of the intents and purposes would be the husband and wife themselves."

But, he said, the timing and amount of the gift and ensuing campaign contribution "could be an indication of intent to influence an election."

Besides that $1.5 million, White also received:

— $84,000 in $3,000 contributions to his campaign from members of the Sansing family or corporations associated with them.

— $100,000 in contributions to United Conservatives from Sansing Holdings LLC.

The total, $1,684,000, is 79 percent of the total $2,124,937 he has raised in his campaign and United Conservatives.

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