Follow the Money! This bit of wisdom tells us to take a close look at how money moves through our political system. Understand the money flow and who is involved and you gain clarity around who influences elections and what they may expect to gain from doing so. Simple enough. But these days, following the money is a different animal. Political committees have changed the campaign funding landscape as donations are swapped from political action committee to another. Political committees are exempt from limits on donations, and can stuff voter mailboxes with a barrage of political ads late in local elections. Candidates who don’t attract lush PAC funding are unable to respond to the onslaught. This dynamic is a huge factor in City and County elections. School Board candidate Eric Robinson works for over 40 political committees. A review of their financials raises a number of issues.
With names like Building on Your Dreams and Citizens For Florida Prosperity, these committees sound nonpartisan and committed to the public good. And with over $5 million reported in contributions in Robinson-managed PACs, their impact has changed local elections. In 2000, $10,000 for a Sarasota School Board campaign would have been expensive. In the 2014 school board race, the campaign and PAC dollars spent approached $200,000.
Providing accounting services for these committees been profitable for Mr. Robinson, as his accounting firm has been paid almost $200,000 for services in the past few years. That’s a nice supplemental income stream, and doesn’t include what candidate campaigns may pay him. But closer inspection of political committee financials point to a capricious billing approach. For instance, Mr. Robinson’s firm was paid $30,748 by Citizens for Common Sense, which took in $256,000 in donations. Manatee Against Taxation was billed $54,591.22 for accounting, though the committee took in $115,000. The lushly funded Citizens Against Taxation ($282,000) has only paid $1,500 for Robinson’s accounting services. With accounting billing ranging from zero to over $50,000, these wide disparities warrant explanation from a financial professional who wants us to trust him with one of Sarasota County’s largest budgets—the School Board’s
Consulting has also been a lucrative benefit of working with political committees for Mr. Robinson and his wife. The same committee that paid only $1,500 for accounting, Citizens Against Taxation, paid Robbie’s LLC (a firm owned by Mr. Robinson and his wife, County Commissioner Christine Robinson) a single payment of $140,000 for consulting in 2014. In 2015, Robbie’s LLC, received $5,000 for consulting from another Robinson committee, Legal Reform Now, and Eric Robinson was personally paid another $40,000 for consulting by the same committee.
According to Legal Reform Now’s state financials, it is $127,000 in the red. How does a political committee spend money it doesn’t have? And while Robbie’s LLC took in at least $140,000 in consulting in 2014, Commissioner Robinson’s state financial disclosure indicates only $7,000 in income from Robbie’s—another strange disparity.
Having millions in political committee “assets under management” is a big responsibility, and a profitable one. The voters deserve answers to these and other questions regarding funny accounting practices from a candidate asking us to trust him with the School Board budget. In the end, voters would do well to ask: if elected, who would Mr. Robinson really work for?