by Joe Shea
August 18, 2016
MANATEE REPUBLICANS 'EAT THEIR OWN' TO WIN SCHOOL BOARD RACES
BRADENTON, Fla., Aug. 18, 2014 (UPDATED 8/19/14, 11:50pm ET) -- The chairman and treasurer of a political action committeee (PAC) called Citizens Against Taxation (CAT), which last week sent out a mailer attacking conservative Republicans Frank Brunner and Mary Cantrell, candidates for the Manatee County School Board, said repeatedly Friday and Saturday that he was "only the accountant" and knew nothing about the allegations in the mailer.
"I was only the accountant," CPA Eric Robinson said several times in interviews with The American Reporter. He said that his role as Chairman and Treasurer are only a convenience that ensures checks written from the funds of the group are not signed by unauthorized people or cannot be accounted for.
Editor's Note: You may experience difficulty in viewing documents on the Florida Division of Elections website. The agency does not allow citizens to link directly to documents, but one can link to the main state pages for a committee or candidate. Links have been provided to those pages where appropriate.
Upon reaching those pages, by scrolling down below "Affiliates," readers will find two other links: one to "Campaign Finance Activity" and one to "Campaign Documents." From there, you can go to the list of reports. On those report pages, at the botoom you can select "Contributions" - money the committee has received = and "Expenditures," money the committee has spent. They will open on another page.
He does not sign any of the checks because they are all electronic funds transfers, or ETFs, Robinson said.
But the issue of who pays and who's in charge goes to the larger one of transparency in campaign funding.
Eric Robinson's role is barely relevant to the campaigns he serves - theoretically, anyone who can write checks and keep books can do it, and many candidates do.
Actually, the facts behind the "Pea Pod" mailer are a case study in the "triumph" of the Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United v Federal Elections Commission, which allowed corporations and unions to contribute unlimited amounts anonymously to the candidates of their choice through political action committees, and to do so at any time before the election is held.
While some limitations still exist on funds that state campaigns receive, at a higher level those limits were erased under Citizens United.
At the local level, the impact of that decision is deeply felt by candidates who may be in the same party, particularly when facing a well-heeled PAC whose donors are invisible. Other candidates are effectively forced to raise funds in small amounts - $5 by $10 by $20 - or sell their souls to answer expensive 30-second TV spots and full-page newspaper ads.
We never learn what the anonymous donors want from their chosen candidates, but we suspect their candidates surely do.
In this new world of campaign funding, the words "chairman" and treasurer" mean nothing as far as directing activities of a campaign, such as door-to-door efforts or mass mailings.
The titles are just a ruse Certified Public Accountants use to keep track of the big money they spend. Ask who calls the shots and they will decline to tell you, citing state law and professional confidentiality. It's a secret, in other words. The guy who just bought your school board would rather you didn't know his name.
In this case, there were at least surface indications that the money came from conservative Republicans or the Republican Party of Florida's fundraising organization.
That's not because Robinson also chairs a Venice-based organization called Coalition For Conservative Leadership. That organization has raised just $18,690 since it was formed in July 2013, Robinson's state filings indicate, and the state has revoked the committee's right to collect money.
Robinson claimed that it is a "false accusation" that PAC chairmen and treasurers like himself ordinarily review, create or bear any responsibility for mailings, but he declined to name any persons who contributed money and wording to cover the cost of creating and sending the mailer.
He denied doing it himself, saying that such an idea is "ridiculous."
But he had no such reservations about the "false accusations" regarding the two candidates' residency that were made in the mailer by the committee he ostensibly chairs. "I just do the accounting," Robinson said, again and again.
Robinson said he had made no political contributions to the group, and only charged $500 for his services.
The mailer charges the two school board candidates are "Two Peas in a Pod" who are "long-term bureaucrats" and "live outside the districts they are working to represent." It says they "have both failed at managing budgets," citing allegations that might support the charges - if ever proved.
Both Cantrell and Brunner, in fact, have rented apartments in the two Bradenton, Fla., school board districts where they want to serve, and in that way satisfied the residency qualifications to appear on the ballot.
State law is sketchy about such mailers and allegations they make. Most CAT filings posted on the Florida Division of Elections website could not be opened, and would not have provided the names of any real human beings, anyway.
Eric Robinson is chairman and treasurer of the organization, but says that he knew nothing about the mailing, the candidates, or allegations in the mailer, which arrived in Manatee County voters' mailboxes on Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014.
That was the same day Citizens Against Taxation received a $30,000 campaign contribution from a Tallahassee-based CPA firm, Carroll & Co., on behalf of a client called the Committee for Justice and Economic Freedom (CJEF).
The CJEF title is abbreviated in the state website, so it reads "Committee for Justice and Econ," leaving the impression that it is a progressive Democratic group - the Committee for Justice and Economic Equality, perhaps. But it's not.
In fact, the Carroll & Co. CPA firm mostly represents Republican organizations, and is spreading the largesse of the CJEF to a least 28 different Republican campaigns - 23 of them for the Republican-controlled Florida House of Representatives - and to a handful of other campaigns.
Smaller amounts go to races for Orange Co. (Fla.) Clerk of Courts, Miami Community Council and Miami-Dade Property Appraiser, and a lone race for the Florida Senate.
Most of the campaigns get between $500 and $1,000 each, while Citizens Against Taxation got $148,000, Carroll & Co.'s records show.
The Tallahassee CPA firm appears to be a quiet, community-minded clearinghouse for Republican Party of Florida funds, and its clients also fund a number of Tea Party candidates.
The CPA firm's disclosures show it has collected $224,025 for CJEF, and spent a fraction less than 65 percent of that, or $148,000, on funding Citizens Against Taxation.
That includes $30,000 sent to Robinson's firm on Aug. 14, the day the Brunner-Cantrell mailing was received, and may have come too late for the most current reporting period. Another $3,000 is not accounted for in the filed reports of both firms.
Among the committees handled by Carroll & Co. is Floridians for Prosperity and Economic Freedom, with addresses in Tallahassee, Lake Helen and Deltona, Fla. That is a name reminiscent of the Americans for Prosperity, the infamous Koch brothers creation that has received about $200 million from the billionaire brothers and has funded hundreds of subsidiary organizations throughout the country with that money.
Charles D. and David H. Koch are members of the second-wealthiest family in the nation, and the two brothers own 84 percent of the nation's largest private corporation, Koch Industries.
The Koch brothers have most recently mounted a national campaign to repeal or strike down laws requiring utilities to buy excess power from solar power users at preferred rates, and two states - with Florida on the way - have already done so. These days, much of the Koch brothers' money is spent on fighting scientific evidence that climate change is caused by humans.
The two campaigns for Manatee County School Board come as the board tries to distance itself from a period of overspending and budget deficits, felonious sexual assaults by teachers and coaches against students, and amid highly politicized charges of mismanagement and corruption that eventually led schools superintendent Tim McGonegal to abruptly retire in 2012.
But the new superintendent, Rick Mills, has fired the most popular man in Manatee County, head football coach Joe Kinnan, who led Manatee High School's Hurricanes to five state titles in a stellar 28-year career and has been on sabbatical as he fights cancer for the fourth time.
Kinnan, meanwhile, issued his own 58-page blast against the superintendent, Rick Mills, and won headline coverage in local newspapers and area television.
It is a terribly contentious time for the district, as anonymous mailings and television ads paid for by faraway billion-dollar corporations fan the flames of political hostility and yet, with their money, seem likely to decide the outcome.
Both Republicans, Brunner and Cantrell are competing against other candidates in the non-partisan school board races in Districts 4 and 5. Cantrell, in District 5, for years headed the nation's most-awarded vocational college, Manatee Technical Institute in Bradenton, Fla.
She is an attractive woman in her 60s with a real wealth of successful education management experience.
As one example, MTI has participated for decades in a nationwide vocational college competition called SkillsUSA, and under her leadership often walked away with the lion's share of first-place medals every year.
According to her website, "Dr. Mary Cantrell's 18 years as Director of Manatee Technical Institute speak for themselves. What once was a struggling 500-student Vo-Tech is now a beacon of success boasting four campuses that serve over 15,000 students of southwest Florida.
"For 11 consecutive years, MTI has won the honor of being touted as the No. 1 technical school in America, winning sometimes as many as 50 more medals at SkillsUSA than the No. 2 school," Cantrell's site says.
I had a personal reason for disliking the mailer. When thousands of attendees were stranded at the Manatee Fairgrounds parking lot at the first HHO Games & Exposition, which I organized in 1998 on behalf of The American Reporter, she came to our rescue by making facilities at MTI available on less than a day's notice.
I thought the mailer was fundamentally wrong, and that she'd make a great school board member - even though, as a Democratic committeeman, I can't support Republicans.
I did want to repay her kindness, though, so I thought I'd look at the source of the attacks. But that took on far larger meaning as my investigation continued, and my debt of gratitude to her was no longer a driving motivation.
The question really became, why are these two good people being attacked by some of the largest corporations in America?
That answer to that still remains a mystery.
The American Reporter could not reach Cantrell for comment on Saturday. An "M. Cantrell" is listed in Pinellas County in the Clearwater area, but a voice message at that number did not indicate whether it belonged to the candidate, and the call was not returned.
Brunner, running in District 4, sat on the school board for 10 years until 2006, and is running again "because I have two children in our school system and I'm very concerned about how the lack [of] strong board leadership and poor fiscal health is impacting the quality of education we are providing,' he told the Bright House Networks Bay News 9 website.
Brunner, a good-looking West Point graduate, is widely considered a conservative, but even strong liberal critics agree he is well-informed and well-qualified for the school board post, if only because he served on it in better years, from 1996 to 2006.
"He is extremely conservative," one liberal critic of Brunner said after hearing him speak to her organization. The American Reporter made no effort to reach Brunner.
Mary Cantrell is facing Julie Aranibar, the board's Republican chairperson, who defeated a popular college professor and has presided over some of the board's worst moments. Brunner faces Karen Carpenter, and both she and Aranibar have been endorsed by the local McClatchy newspaper, the Bradenton Herald.
Also in the District 4 race is lawyer and pastor Rev. James T. Golden, an eloquent and powerful speaker who formerly served on the Btradenton City Council. He is the lone Democrat in the race. He would be a welcome addition to the board and likely to lead it in the major reform it so badly needs.
Robinson said he has had no involvement with the two campaigns, either for or against them. "I never heard of these people," he said Friday, referring to Brunner and Cantrell.
Robinson said well-known treasurers like Nancy Watkins, treasurer of Gov. Rick Scott's campaign, and Abby Dupree, another well-known political CPA, both represent - as he does - dozens of candidate committees and PACs, usually with no firsthand knowledge of the campaigns' day-to-day activities. He suggested we call both of them, but not mention his name, to prove that contention. We declined to do that.
Robinson said that it is a common practice for CPAs to serve as chairpersons and treasurers while having no role in activities of the organizations they purportedly lead. State records indicate Robinson is an officer of 26 political groups that have filed reports with the State of Florida Division of Elections. A couple of those are closed and two have had their committee status revoked. None appear to be actual candidate committees.
One Robinson committee, though, Manatee Against Taxation, took in #115,000 between May 30 and June 30, 2013, including $50,000 listed by Robinson as an "expenditure" to his CPA firm, and $65,000 paid to Floridians for Freedom, a committee headed by Robinson's friend, Abby Dupree - whose committee status has been revoked and which shows no contributions received and just one $945 expenditure to Front Line Strategies, Inc., on July 31, 2013. In addition, Manatee Against Taxation made a$47,113,29 expenditure to Political Ink for mailers and postage, records show.
Its $65,000 contribution to Robinson's CAT committee appears to have been unreported by either Dupree or Robinson, and at the same time the revoked committee's total appears to match exactly the amount received by Eric Robinson's Committee Against Taxation.
Robinson signed the Citizens Against Taxation filings as both Chairman and Treasurer.
State law does not require officers of political PACs to review literature distributed by the groups they chair or do accounting for, Robinson said. It is unclear what liability such officers may have if sued by those whom the groups attack.
Citizens Against Taxation was formed by Robinson on October 1, 2013 and was stamped "Received" by the elections division on Oct. 4, 2013, well before the two school board candidates' candidacy was announced in The Bradenton Times, an online daily owned by a former county commissioner, on June 10, 2014.
The first large gift, of $15,000, to Citizens Against Taxation came on July 11, 2014, just a month after their announcement. That was followed by a $15,000 gift on July 14, and a $28,000 gift on July 21. On Aug. 4, Aug. 12 and Aug. 14, the group received $90,000 in three gifts of $30,000 each.
Robinson has reported that the group received at least $115,000 since early July of this year, including gifts of $42,000 and $43,000 during two weeks in mid-July and $30,000 between Aug. 2 and Aug. 8, 2014, just before the mailer was sent. Another $33,000 is in the reporting pipeline, Carroll & Co. records indicate.
To risk complicating things, Robinson's committees included Manatee Against Taxation, which reported just two contributions - $50,000 from Robinson, Hanks Young & Roberts on June 5, 2014, and $65,000 from another of Eric Robinson's committees, the Committee to Protect Florida's Seniors, on June 30. Manatee Against Taxat ion also reported paying Robinson, Hanks, Young & Roberts $50,000 on July 19, and paid Political Ink $47,113.29 on July 3.
Manatee Against Taxation reported a contribution of $50,000 from Robinson, Hanks, Young & Roberts on June 5 and and then paid Robinson, Hanks, Young & Roberts $50,000 on July 3, 2013. Manatee Against Taxation got $65,000 from Robinson's Committee to Protect Florida's Seniors, which receives most of its money from phosphate giants Mosaid and Cargill.
This bewildering sequence of transfers adds a more cogent explanation to the question of why Robinson serves as Chairman and Treasurer of so many committees: It's because he can transfer money back and forth among them without anyone else's approval being required. The $115,000 Manatee Against Taxation once had in 2013, before it closed, probably became ther $115,000 Citizens Against Taxation had in 2014.
Robinson's state filings are listed, but the state elections division's website failed to open documents that are listed there for public access, which probably would not show individual donors, anyway.
All the donations, The American Reporter has learned, came from CJEF, the Tallahassee-based Committee for Justice and Economic Freedom. But the money the CJEF sent was received from CAT in two gifts of of $15,000 on July 18, 2014, and gifts of $28,000 on July 22, and $30,000 on Aug. 5.
But where did the Tallahasse committee's money come from? That is now known.
Robinson declined to name the people who authored the flyer and supplied the CAT organization with money for the expenditures, which Robinson admitted to disbursing. He says he charged only $500 for filing more than a dozen reports required by the state, and its timing is consistent with some of the contributions to the Committee Against Taxation.
Of course, without taxation none of this information would have come to light!
Appearing at the bottom of the front page of the mailer, as required by law, is the organization's name and the address of Robinson's CPA firm, Robinson, Hanks, Young and Roberts, at 133 S. Harbor Drive in Venice, Fla.
That address is in south Sarasota County, in sight of the soaring cathedral of the Diocese of Venice, and about 35 miles from where the Manatee County School Board meets. It's 312 miles from Tallahassee, where the money made its most recent stop at the Committee for Justice and Economic Freedom.
The donors were named in the filings of that committee. They range from Washington lobbyists to the makers of Budweiser, from household health care and real estate names to Sea World, from an association of pain management providers to Clear Channel, the giant conservative broadcaster, and to NBC Universal Media - all power players in Florida politics.
At $40,000, the Florida Chamber of Commerce's Florida Jobs PAC - a big giver to Gov. Rick Scott - and at $20,000, Disney Worldwide Services, Inc., are the two largest donors.
The Committee for Justice and Economic Freedom also received a $2,500 gift from Dean Cannon, PA - a former state representative who served as Speaker from 2010 to 2012 and then became a lobbyist - and another $2.500 from his partner and brother, Roy Dean Cannon of Tallahassee. Like Dean Cannon, four other donors to the CJEF come from Winter Park, Fla.
What do these people and corporations care about Manatee County and our school board?
I don't believe they care at all, and like Eric Robinson, I don't think they have the slightest idea who the people are whose reputations they are attacking.
I doubt that any of them know the money goes to Republicans now in office who want to keep other Republicans out.
As a result - and as is the case everywhere in the country today - the Republicans are cannibalizing their own candidates, while the forces of the Tea Party, like ISIS, sweep races that use to be safe for electable moderate Republicans.
No Republican is indifferent to the lessons of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's defeat by an unknown Tea Party candidate in a GOP primary earlier this year.
The donors are not from Sarasota or Bradenton, but from San Diego and San Antonio and St. Louis, from Washington, D.C., Hollywood, Orlando and Tallahassee. Their agenda: lower taxes, more special-interest legislation and money, money, money - yours.
Eric Robinson's Venice, Fla., CPA firm is headquartered in a small, one-story building where a receptionist said she knew nothing about Citizens Against Taxation and referred a reporter's questions to him.
But at least one mailer that his office never saw was traceable all the way back to some of the wealthiest companies - corporations, not people - in America.
The reports filed by Robinson show that not one cent of the committee's $71,000 in expenditures so far was made in Manatee County, and that the mailer was created by a firm Called Political Ink, based in Washington, D.C.
Obviously, people with no stake in our county or our county's children and their education are calling the shots, attacking our local favorites and trying to shape their vision of the America to come.
So, should the general public, meaning the American voting public, buy a "pig in a poke"?
That's what happens when money from far away, with no discernible interest in a local race, determines which candidates have the money to mount an effective campaign, whether for school board, county commission or a judgeship - or even for President.
Better "two peas in a pod," we suggest, than a sack full of pigs.
Joe Shea is Editor-in-Chief of The American Reporter and Secretary of the Manatee County Democratic Executive Committee, which did not contemplate, authorize or review this article. With the assistance of Mary Cantrell, he rented the facilities of the Manatee Technical Institute in 2010 for the HHO Games & Exposition, which he founded and are sponsored by The American Reporter.