Future speaker bashes special interests, but spends big on their dime

We’re glad Richard Corcoran decided he wants to “clean up” Tallahassee. He sure has had a dangerous dependence on special interests in the past.

Charter airplanes. Expensive dinners. Cigars and wine and fancy hotels.

The big spending by the state House GOP caucus, through the Republican Party of Florida, stands out for its size — $238,000 in five months — and because of the person the bills ultimately trace back to: Rep. Richard Corcoran, who is to be designated Wednesday as the next House speaker.

Corcoran this spring said he was ready to “declare war on all the special interests … all the Gucci-loafing, shoe-wearing special interests, powers-that-be.” But at the same time, he and other House Republicans ran up hefty expenses on the state party account, whose coffers are traditionally filled by special interests.

Between the time Corcoran began running House campaigns on Jan. 23 until the end of the June 30 quarter, a POLITICO Florida analysis has determined, the House GOP spent:

*$72,000 on charter air service, $48,000 of which was paid to MySky Aviation Solutions and another $11,500 for Vizion Air.

*$69,000 on food and beverages, which includes almost $5,500 spent at Tallahassee’s Paisley Café, nearly $4,800 at Clusters & Hops — an intimate Tallahassee restaurant too small for big-dollar fundraisers — and about $4,700 at The Capital Grille in Tampa, a place where the powerbroker from Land O’ Lakes is known to hold court.

*$20,000 on hotels, which includes about $4,200 at the Loews in Orlando, $2,500 at the Omni Shoreham in Washington, and $2,300 at the Venetian Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

*$1,000 on cigars, another $1,000 in purchases from the Trophy & Awards Center and $1,100 from Cufflinks Depot.

Corcoran acknowledged that the sums look large, and he pledged to run House campaigns efficiently.

“We can always do better and we will,” Corcoran said while also noting that the expenses aren’t inordinately high for House campaigns.

He said the bottom-line number represents the true expense of protecting, managing, fundraising for and, at times, feeding and entertaining the 81-member House GOP caucus.

“When we took over management of House campaigns, we indicated that the party had four primary functions: win races; foster meaningful, substantive relationships among members; develop a principled, non-lobbyist driven agenda; and defend legislators who are attacked by special interests,” Corcoran said via email. “All expenditures at the party have been guided by these principles.”

Though it’s contradictory to bash special interests while hitting them up for donations, Corcoran explained that “raising money is a necessary step” in the political process. He said that, when he becomes speaker in 2017, he plans to institute reforms at either the House or state level to limit big-money influence over the legislative process. He said he’s already instituting changes at the party.

“We have reduced or eliminated the use of professional fundraising consultants and the reliance on lobbyist in-kinds for events and air travel,” he said.  “We have also reduced the number of fundraisers while at the same time involving more members in the process, including freshman, than ever before.”

But some GOP fundraisers contacted by POLITICO said they were bothered by the size of some of the expenses. Other Republicans said the spending justifies a prior decision by the Senate and Gov. Rick Scott to move their fundraising activities out of the Republican Party of Florida because they don’t trust the newly elected chairman, Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, who serves under Corcoran in the House.

“If they expect me to raise money for the party, they can forget it,” one top Republican fundraiser said.

Corcoran dismissed some of the criticisms as political.

Corcoran has answered tough questions about RPOF spending in the past, after he was a top adviser to Marco Rubio when he led state House campaigns in 2005-2006 and then served as speaker in 2007-2008.

Rubio’s use of an RPOF credit card in the Legislature became a campaign issue in 2010 when he successfully ran for the U.S. Senate against then-governor Charlie Crist. It has also become a campaign issue recently as Rubio runs for the White House.

The scrutiny of Rubio’s American Express bills five years ago led to an examination of Corcoran’s spending as well. He rang up as much as $400,000 on his card, though most of the big charges were for other Republican staffers, events and politicians.

“Rubio’s Aide Spent Lavishly Like His Boss,” blared the headline from a March 23, 2010 article reported by the St. Petersburg Times and The Miami Herald. The story detailed how, days before Rubio was sworn in as speaker, he and his top deputies flew a charter plane to a Republican conference in Washington, stayed at a $600-a-night hotel and “hired a chauffeur to squire them around the city.”

“You have meeting after meeting to talk about the ideas and about building the agenda,” Corcoran told the reporters. “Every penny was worth it.”

Corcoran and Rubio initially gave reporters conflicting accounts about who exactly paid for what, and when, at an antebellum-style Georgia inn, then called the Melhana Plantation, where Rubio and his family and friends stayed before he became speaker, according to the Herald/Times. At least $6,773 for 20 rooms was billed to Corcoran’s card, which Rubio’s family appears to have ultimately paid off. The RPOF eventually paid nothing, they said.

The widespread use of the party credit cards rocked the GOP establishment in 2010, and led to a broader look at party finances and the eventual ouster of the chairman at the time, Jim Greer, who backed Crist over Rubio. Greer was later criminally charged, convicted and sentenced to an 18-month prison sentence in a separate theft and money-laundering scheme involving party funds.

All the other Republican officials who had party AmEx cards were cleared in a subsequent audit paid for by the party.

In the wake of the Greer scandal, lawmakers made it easier to control party money so that a future chairman couldn’t misspend money or allow others to do it.

“The House and Senate got burned to the tune of $2 million each and they didn’t want that to happen again,” said one Republican familiar with the fallout under Greer. “When the person with the checkbook isn’t trustworthy, you get your money out. It’s as simple as that. That’s what’s happening with Blaise now that he’s chairman.”

No one has alleged or provided any evidence that Ingoglia has committed any crime or misspent any money, but his demeanor and management style have been increasingly compared to Greer’s by Republican critics.

Few Republicans or lobbyists in the state capital will criticize Corcoran, who’s widely respected or feared because of his cunning, his knowledge of the process and his powerful post as both House budget chairman and future leader of the chamber.

Another change made after Greer’s term: the Republican Party of Florida ended the use of AmEx cards and it began disclosing individual expenses reimbursed to staff members. The spending is listed on the Division of Elections website under a seldom-checked category called “Other Distributions.” (Reporters, consultants and interested members of the public usually just monitor expenses that are reported online in a broader category listed as “Expenditures.”)

If a party official charges numerous expenses while conducting party business, he can be paid back in one lump sum that the party reports in the Expenditures category as a “reimbursement.” The finer details of the spending — whether it is $150.88 at Mike’s Beer Barn in Tallahassee on March 9 or $10.97 at McDonald’s the following day — are listed individually in the Other Distributions category. However, the Other Distributions category doesn’t have a name attached to it and so, initially, it can be unclear who spent what and where.

In order to determine exactly how much spending occurred under Corcoran for House campaigns at restaurants, hotels and shops, POLITICO reviewed 966 Other Distribution line items (totaling almost $613,000) and determined that 422 of them corresponded to the dates of reimbursements made to Corcoran’s right-hand man, Michael J. Blair, for House campaigns. Blair has handled House campaign expenditures in the same way Corcoran did under Rubio in 2005-06.

In all, Blair was reimbursed $238,329.46 in the first and second quarters of the year for the charter air service, meals, drinks, hotels, cigars, office supplies and other odds and ends. That dollar figure represents the staff and lawmaker expenses for House campaigns. About 78 percent of that money was charged in the second quarter, the first full one in which Corcoran led House campaigns and the newly elected Ingoglia presided as chair.

The party raised more than $1.9 million in that second quarter, but more than $1.2 million was pass-through money for the Jacksonville mayor’s race that had nothing to do with House campaigns. So RPOF raised only $709,000. Sources say as much as half of that was raised through the three Cabinet members. And since House campaigns overall listed $362,000 in total expenditures (Blair’s reimbursement items as well as staffer salaries and consultant contracts), it could indicate that RPOF spent nearly $8,000 more than it raised during the second quarter.

For nearly half of the second quarter, Corcoran and other House members were also banned from fundraising for the party because of a House rule that forbids raising from contributors during a session or a special session. The first month of the quarter, April, was the second half of the 60-day lawmaking session. And legislators returned for a special session on the budget from June 1-June 19, leaving just 11 days in that month for fundraising.

“RPOF’s expenses are standard business expenses incurred to foster, promote, maintain, and increase our Republican majority,” the party, declining to release receipts or passenger manifest lists for charter flights, said in a written statement. “No Republican member of the Legislature engaged in any fundraising during regular or special session. We are pleased to report that the Party has been and remains in a strong cash position – a position that puts us at an advantage over Florida Democrats going into the 2016 election.”

Indeed, for years, Florida Republicans have swatted back questions about their finances by implicitly arguing that their big-spending is justified by the results: the GOP dominates the Florida House, Senate, governor’s office and the three elected Cabinet seats.

Echoing RPOF’s statement, Corcoran said he didn’t fundraise during session. Though some expenses were distributed during session, Corcoran said, that reflects the date the reimbursement was filed and not the actual date of the expense. For instance, $4,447.09 listed as a distribution to the swank Hotel Duval on March 9 — six days after session started — indicates the expense was for a pre-session fundraiser.

Whether it’s $150 dropped at the Bass Pro Shop, $1,363.99 at Morton’s Steakhouse in Coral Gables or $6.26 at Krispy Kreme in Tallahassee, Corcoran maintains that the spending served the Republican-led House.

Some of the big food tabs paid for fundraisers, he said. Other times, it paid for House Republican gatherings at his Tallahassee home or the nearby home of his likely successor as House speaker, Hialeah’s Jose Oliva. There, Republican members smoke cigars, drink, eat and discuss policy and politics. That costs money, Corcoran said, but it also insulates members from the influence of wining and dining with lobbyists. Corcoran said that one of the expenses, $326 at the Oliva Cigar Company owned by Oliva, was made without the knowledge of his colleague who has given away far more cigars than the party has purchased.

As for the biggest expense, charter air service, Corcoran said he and other members aren’t jet-setting. They’re usually flying in prop planes, he said, and the overall cost of getting to hard-to-reach Tallahassee isn’t out of the ordinary. For years, some members have flown in planes owned by lobbyists and special interests, Corcoran said, declining to name specific representatives. Sometimes the costs are reimbursed through the party, he said, and other times the member might pay for the flight out of his personal political committee or taxpayers could pick up part of the tab, just as they would with commercial air flights on, say, Delta or American Airlines, which often charge steep fares. Now, the expense is listed in one place.

“It’s not an uptick in travel. It’s an uptick in transparency,” he said. “We made a concerted effort when it comes to charter service – something that has always gone on at the party – to make sure that 1) it is as transparent as possible No. 2: we want it to be as inexpensive as possible and No. 3: when it’s possible, to pull back from this process of flying on lobbyists planes.”

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