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Florida donors with state business fueled end of DeSantis presidential run

The biggest donors in Republican politics largely shunned Ron DeSantis after his presidential campaign began to falter last summer. So his allies turned to donors the Florida governor still held sway over because of his day job.

A state coronavirus response contractor, CDR Enterprises, gave $1 million to his aligned super PAC Fight Right in the final weeks of the campaign. The DeSantis administration has issued purchase orders to the company worth $158 million to help distribute vaccines, treat patients and provide other services, sometimes through no-bid contracts, according to state records.

Herzog Railroad Services — a Missouri company the DeSantis’s team hired to build a $35 million Orlando commuter rail extension — gave $250,000 around the same time to Never Back Down, another aligned super PAC.

And a casino magnate, Jeffrey Soffer, gave $1 million in late July — on the same day that the campaign announced massive layoffs. DeSantis came out in support of Soffer’s controversial bid to transfer a casino license to his Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach weeks after leaving the presidential race.

People involved in the DeSantis fundraising effort described the dependence on donors with business before Florida as part of a strategic shift born of necessity. Lobbyist friends and fundraisers of DeSantis called Florida clients asking them to contribute to the super PACs paying for television ads and field operations — and many of those people gave, according to people familiar with the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private discussions. The pitch, according to one person who received a call, was that DeSantis was likely to remain a powerful governor in the state.

DeSantis had entered the presidential campaign as the richest candidate in politics, with $82.5 million in state campaign funds that seeded one of his super PACs, Never Back Down. But the governor raised relatively little from major donors between June 30 and the end of the year, when most deep-pocketed Republicans who play in national politics looked elsewhere, eventually settling on the campaign of former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley.

Only 11 percent of the $147 million raised in 2023 by Never Back Down and Fight Right came in the second half of the year, according to campaign finance records. Many of the biggest donations had deep interests in Florida. Never Back Down, which raised nearly all of the funds, took in 37 percent of its haul from Florida-based donors in the first half of the year, not counting the transfer from the governor’s own political committee, according to campaign finance filings. The group raised 57 percent of its funds from Florida-based donors in the second half of the year.

James Uthmeier, DeSantis’s chief of staff and former campaign manager, said in response to a request for comment that “the premise of your article is entirely false.”

“Anybody working closely with the governor, such as I do, knows he is a man of unwavering principle and he would be the last person to grant access or state favor in exchange for political support, as your article suggests,” he said in a statement. “However, it is the case that many people who work in and around Florida supported his campaign because they genuinely believed he was the best candidate, and many have seen firsthand the incredible results of his leadership in our state.”

Now that he is no longer a candidate, DeSantis has continued to court donors, and has not ruled out another campaign when he leaves office in 2027. He plans to host a two-day “Investor Appreciation Retreat” in early April at a Hard Rock Hotel in Hollywood, Fla., which is owned by Seminole Gaming, a benefactor of the governor’s official decisions.

DeSantis had signed a deal with Seminole Gaming in 2021 to allow it to offer statewide sports betting in exchange for new gaming taxes that DeSantis estimated would bring an additional $6 billion in state revenue through 2030. The tribally owned company gave $1 million to DeSantis’s reelection campaign and an additional $3 million to the Republican Governors Association, which supported DeSantis’s reelection. Then in August, after DeSantis’s presidential campaign had announced layoffs for low fundraising, the tribal company wrote a $1 million check to Never Back Down.

Now that the campaign is over, Seminole is continuing to support the DeSantis political operation. The company has offered to subsidize the cost of the retreat, according to a person familiar with the planning. The event is designed to thank donors of $250,000 or more.

Gary Bitner, a spokesman for Seminole Gaming, declined to comment on questions about the donation to Never Back Down and the April event. Herzog Railroad Services did not respond to a request for comment.

Another major supporter is Craig Mateer, a DeSantis appointee to the Orlando Airport Authority and the Florida State University system’s board of governors. On Tuesday, DeSantis announced that he is appointing Mateer to the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, the group that DeSantis and state lawmakers created to oversee Disney World amid the governor’s feud with Disney.

Campaign finance records show the campaign paid $531,955 to a Mateer-affiliated company, TMFB Management Services, for travel expenses, while Never Back Down similarly paid $266,551 to TMFB Transportation in the second half of the year. By making his planes available for the governor, Mateer helped ensure they could book travel on short notice, according to a person familiar with the arrangement.

“Regarding transportation services, it was our pleasure to support Ron DeSantis for President and provide legally, sound, safe and fast flights. We look forward to supporting him in the future,” Mateer said in an email.

Mateer has since offered DeSantis allies another perk. Top aides to the governor, including Uthmeier, have been holding meetings in recent months with lobbyists at the bar of Tallahassee’s Governors Inn, a hotel and bar owned by Mateer just blocks from the state capitol, according to people familiar with the meetings.

The arrangement has raised eyebrows among lawmakers because the property remains closed to the public after a recent renovation. A person who recently answered the phone at the property said it was only open to friends and family of the owners. The inn’s website says the institution remains “closed for renovation.” People familiar with the arrangement say the bar accepts payment in cash.

“We’re thrilled there’s so much interest in the opening of the historic Governors Inn. As it’s from the 1800s, there is much to renovate and the building was taken down to the studs, but stay tuned for our opening,” Mateer said. He did not comment on the DeSantis team’s use of the property in the meantime.

Before his appointment to the Orlando Airport Authority by DeSantis, Mateer owned an airport baggage logistics company, Baggage Airline Guest Services, which provides baggage handling for the cruise ship industry out of the Orlando airport. He sold the company in 2018 for $275 million, according to a news release from Mateers’s law firm. He received a patent in February, after his appointment, for technology to track bags as they are transferred between airports and cruise ships, according to public records.

Angela Starke, a spokeswoman for the aviation authority, said that board members are governed by state conflict of interest statutes and that members of the current board have not recused themselves from matters before the airport under those guidelines.

DeSantis has a history throughout his governorship of courting major donors, including to facilitate his penchant for private air travel. He took numerous undisclosed trips on private jets and accepted lodging and dining from major donors, according to flight manifests, tracking data and other documents previously obtained by The Washington Post. One donor also lent the Governor’s Mansion a pricey golf simulator; DeSantis later steered $92 million in leftover federal coronavirus stimulus money to a controversial highway interchange project that directly benefited that same donor.

In the final months of the campaign, Nick Iarossi, a top Tallahassee lobbyist and co-finance chairman of the DeSantis campaign, contacted another one of his clients, Carlos Duart, the CEO of CDR Enterprises, to solicit the December donation, according to people familiar with the contribution. Iarossi, a friend of DeSantis, had lobbied on Duart’s behalf in the past and continues to work for him, according to a person with knowledge of the matter.

CDR — which received a no-bid contract from DeSantis’s team to provide covid vaccinations in long-term care facilities — sent a $1 million check just days before Christmas, at a time when most major donors had written off DeSantis as a viable contender, according to campaign finance records. It was the only seven-figure check the DeSantis effort received in December, highlighting just how difficult fundraising had become.

Iarossi and Duart declined to comment.

Sometimes local interests appeared to be making a point of their loyalty. On July 25, the DeSantis campaign announced that it had laid off about a third of its employees because of a fundraising shortfall. On that same day, Soffer, the chairman and chief executive officer of the Fontainebleau Development, gave $1 million to Never Back Down, campaign records show.

Soffer had been a frequent benefactor to DeSantis, giving the governor use of his private plane while in office, according to campaign finance records. Soffer’s company also hired the lobbying firm of Michael Corcoran, a member of DeSantis’s presidential campaign’s national finance advisory board. DeSantis appointed Michael’s brother, former Florida House speaker Richard Corcoran (R), as his state education secretary and later as the president of the New College of Florida.

At the time of his July donation, Soffer was pressuring Tallahassee lawmakers for legislative approval to transfer a casino license from Broward County to his Fontainebleau Hotel. The proposal pushed by Soffer has been introduced in the state legislature by Sen. Blaise Ingoglia (R), a top ally to DeSantis. Ingoglia has secured endorsements for the governor in the state, raised money for his campaign and is widely viewed in Florida political circles as the legislator most aligned with the governor. Blaise also took over Friends of Ron DeSantis after it transferred all its money to Never Back Down.

Two weeks after DeSantis left the race on Feb. 5, a DeSantis spokesman announced that the governor was “open” to supporting legislation approving the casino license move to Miami Beach since it would remove a casino “out of a residential blue-collar community.”

The bill nonetheless failed to pass out of the legislature for the governor’s signature. But Soffer is expected to make another push for the move in the next legislative session. Michael Corcoran and Fontainebleau Development did not respond to a request for comment on the donations.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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