Since the arrest of former Florida Senator Frank Artiles on March 18, political journalists, investigators, and elected office-holders in the state have increasingly been asking one question: Who provided the funds for the scheme Artiles engineered? They may have to wait until prosecutors investigate for answers, but Artiles’ history and ties to Florida utilities may provide some clues.

Artiles faces multiple felony charges in connection to an alleged election scheme that successfully ousted Senator Jose Javier Rodriguez, a long-time climate advocate

Florida members of Congress have formally requested Attorney General Merrick Garland open an “expansive corruption investigation” to look into the source of potentially illegal funds used by Artiles.

Artiles has been connected to Florida utilities, including NextEra and its subsidiary Florida Power and Light (FPL), for years. 

The raid and arrest came months after Artiles took credit for placing the previously unknown third party candidate, Alex Rodriguez, in the race for Senate District 37, according to a source who “asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation,” as reported by Miami Herald last December. 

Artiles’ long history with NextEra, other utilities

Artiles’ checkered past culminated with his resignation from office in 2017 after facing pressure over multiple scandals, including alcohol-fueled racial slurs directed at black members of the Florida Legislature. Prior to his resignation, Artiles fast-tracked pro-utility bills as former chairman of the Florida Senate’s Communications, Energy and Public Utilities Committee, including one that would have allowed NextEra to charge its Florida customers for exploratory fracking in Oklahoma, an attempted end-run around a Florida Supreme Court ruling against FPL on the matter. In 2017, Artiles ended up in the headlines again over his ceremonial role at a NASCAR event sponsored by NextEra, where he waved the starting flag in a NextEra branded jacket, pictures of which he posted on his Facebook page.

Artiles accepted over $30,000 in political contributions from Florida utilities throughout his time in office, including $6,000 from NextEra, $4,500 from TECO, and $4,000 from Duke Energy in direct contributions. His political committee, Veterans for Conservative Principles, received nearly $13,000 from NextEra and $5,000 from Duke.

Veterans for Conservative Principles’ treasurer was Dave Ramba, whose firm Ramba Consulting Group has lobbied for FPL for years. Ramba and his connections to FPL were criticized in 2017 when Artiles traveled on a plane, owned by Ramba, accompanied by John Holley, the director of state legislative affairs for FPL and a former lobbyist with Ramba’s firm, as reported by the Miami Herald. The flight took place just prior to Artiles’ push on legislation that would have allowed NextEra to charge its Florida customers for out-of-state exploratory fracking.

Artiles’ South Florida election scheme repeated through the state

The Senate District 37 scandal was one of three races in Florida in the 2020 cycle that followed a nearly identical pattern: A close race, an unknown third party candidate to siphon some of the votes, and campaign mailers attacking the Democratic candidate, all paid for by new, out-of-state political committees. The races for Senate District 9 and 39 followed the same pattern. 

The mailers featured similar language that appeared to target progressive voters, pulling from the Democratic candidate, as reported by the Miami Herald and Orlando Sentinel. Both South Florida mailers for Alex Rodriguez and Celso Alfonso and Central Florida mailers for Jestine Iannotti featured identical text, focused on fixing health care, fighting climate change, and speaking truth to power. 

The Orlando Sentinel connected Republican consultant Alex Alvarado to the production and printing of the mailers for the third-party candidates in October.  Alvarado’s firm, Alvarado Strategies, was paid by three political committees with connections to Associated Industries of Florida (AIF), a corporate interest group with strong utility ties. “In one case, one of those three committees got $115,000 from an Associated Industries-controlled group and immediately paid $104,909 to Alvarado Strategies,” the Sentinel reported.

AIF has close financial ties to Florida’s investor owned utilities, as EPI has documented. Utilities gave nearly $2 million to five committees either linked to or controlled by AIF in the 2020 election cycle, over 20% of their total giving for the reporting period. 

When asked if their company’s money was used either for the third party candidate’s campaign or in payment to Artiles directly, Neil Nissan, a spokesperson for Duke Energy, stated that it was not. NextEra, TECO, and AIF did not respond to a request for comment.

Potential utility connections to third party candidate also seen in 2018

This is not the first cycle that a well-funded third party candidate has upset a campaign by a close margin, and it’s not the first where those candidates have had at least some connection to Artiles and Florida utilities. In 2018, state Sen. Keith Perry won re-election against Democrat Kayser Enneking by about 2,000 votes, due in large part to a third-party former Democrat candidate likely pulling votes away from Enneking. 

In 2017, Perry voted in support of NextEra’s exploratory fracking legislation while serving on the Communications, Energy and Public Utilities Committee chaired by Artiles. Perry has received $13,500 in direct political donations from Florida utilities, including $1,000 from NextEra, $2,500 from NextEra company Gulf Power, $4,500 from Duke, and $5,500 from TECO, according to campaign finance filings. 

FPL has also donated $20,000 to Perry’s political committee, Building a Prosperous Florida, while TECO has donated $2,500.

Vote record for SB 1238, 2017

The third-party candidate in that race, Charles Goston, earned about 4,300 votes as an independent, despite being a lifelong Democrat. Goston’s campaign was largely funded by Republicans with ties to Perry, as reported by the Gainesville Sun. The consultant behind Goston’s campaign was Patrick Jay Bainter, the owner of a Republican political consulting firm, Data Targeting. Bainter was also heavily involved in Perry’s campaign and was suspected by some observers to have orchestrated the funding behind Goston’s third-party candidacy, which may have included funds connected to a utility front group. Goston claimed he did not know or care where the money supporting his candidacy came from, according to the Gainesville Sun

Bainter and Data Targeting have been the focus of suspected misdeeds over the years. The firm, which also includes consultants Matt Mitchell and Michael Sheehan, came under intense scrutiny for their role in Florida’s redistricting and were required to turn in over 1,800 pages of records as part of a lawsuit filed by Fair District voting-rights groups in 2013.

Data Targeting is one of the top political consulting firms for the Florida Republican Party. In the 2020 cycle alone, the Florida Republican Senate Campaign Committee (FRSCC) reported over $7 million dollars in expenditures to Data Targeting, for services including research, polling, advertising, campaign staff, and line items only reported as “consulting.” Nearly $183,000 of FRSCC’s spending with Data Targeting was earmarked for the Senate District 37 race, the same race that led to Artiles’ arrest. Florida utilities donated nearly $1.5 million to FRSCC in the 2020 cycle.

Broken Promises and Energy Fairness 

Another political committee that supported Goston, the third-party spoiler candidate in 2018, has financial connections to a group that appears to have utility connections. In the race for Perry’s seat in 2018, an organization called “Broken Promises” donated over $130,000 to the political committee “Friends of Charles Goston.”

Broken Promises is one of only two groups that has contributed money to  a Florida political committee called Consumers for Energy Fairness. The second group, Mothers for Moderation, a DC-based 501(c)(4) dark-money group with over $15 million in revenue, states that its mission is to advocate for policies that benefit women, according to its 2018 IRS filings. Consumers for Energy Fairness’ own expenditures have gone to Republican candidates and Republican-affiliated PACs that have also received funding from the state’s utilities, like Jobs for Florida and Floridians for Economic Freedom.

Consumers for Energy Fairness does not have a website or any public presence, but it spent over $5,000 with the public affairs firm McNicholas & Associates on beverages and food in 2019. A similar sounding utility front group, Energy Fairness, is a client of McNicholas & Associates. 

Energy Fairness played a role in setting up an attack on rooftop solar in 2020, via Florida Representative Lawrence McClure. Energy Fairness also fought an energy choice ballot initiative in Florida in 2016 and one of the consultants it hired, FTI’s Matthew DeCourcey, wrote on his resume that Energy Fairness was “representing the interests of regulated utilities.”

Questions about money sources, outside help remain 

The investigation around Artiles and the Senate District 37 race is ongoing. While it is not illegal to conspire to place a third-party candidate into an election, paying for that placement and failing to properly report the money involved is. The arrest warrant for Artiles suggests that money may have illegally exchanged hands, at least in the case of SD37. 

News images are from video content on CNN’s YouTube Channel.

Posted by Alissa Jean Schafer

Alissa Jean Schafer is a research and communications specialist at the Energy and Policy Institute.