LOBBYING ARTICLE COPY

Publish Date: 
Friday, October 31, 2014 - 11:00am

All Aboard Florida-related companies and officials spent more than $3.5 million on campaign contributions and lobbying fees at the state and national level in the last five years, a Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers investigation found.

Companies under the umbrella of Fortress Investment Group of New York — which manages funds that own Florida East Coast Industries of Miami, which in turn owns AAF — paid nearly $2.5 million to several lobbying firms since 2010 to advocate for their causes in the Florida legislative and executive branches, records show.

Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers spent a month researching federal, state and county campaign finance and lobbyist databases for spending by AAF-related companies. The investigation found the companies and their officials contributed about $750,000 to state political parties, committees and candidates in Florida since 2010. That was more than three times as much as their total campaign spending from 1996 through 2008, before the controversial AAF passenger train project emerged.

Records show the political spending spree ramped up as AAF’s parent companies formulated plans for a $2.25 billion passenger train project that would link Miami and Orlando, the state’s two primary tourist destinations. AAF announced the plans for the project in March 2012 after working behind the scenes since at least 2007 when it obtained exclusive rights to use the railway's main line right of way for passenger rail purposes.

“Like many other companies in Florida, we support candidates and groups that advocate economic growth policies for Florida and do so on a bipartisan basis,” said Julie Edwards, AAF’s chief marketing officer, on behalf of AAF and FECI.

AAF officials say the passenger train service will benefit the public by reducing traffic congestion and the related air pollution on highways and enhancing economic development through construction spending and employment.

DAVID VS. GOLIATH?

Some Treasure Coast community activists and elected officials said they believe the large sums of money AAF-related companies are spending on the Florida political process are designed to curry favor with officials who may have a say about various aspects of the passenger train project.

“This is all about garnering political support for Fortress and its subsidiaries,” said K.C. Traylor of Palm City, founder of the Florida Not All Aboard group that is fighting the train project. “If these contributions had no impact, these companies would not contribute. Contributions can make a difference, that is what Fortress is counting on. I am counting on the power of the people to be more important to our elected officials.”

Indian River County Commission Bob Solari, a leading AAF opponent, expressed similar sentiments.

“That type of money certainly gives them some access and influence, so it’ll be helpful. But I don’t know that it will be determinative,” Solari said. “In some sense it’s like David vs. Goliath and they’re Goliath. But we have to remember, Goliath was a big. slow-moving slug and he hit the dirt.”

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AAF already has benefited from state and municipal agency decisions to approve lease and right of way deals along State Road 528 for a new passenger rail corridor from Cocoa to a new mass transit terminal at Orlando International Airport.

AAF requested $1.875 billion in low-interest loans in March 2013 from the Federal Railroad Administration to help pay for improvements to the Florida East Coast Railway corridor needed to add passenger train service to the freight line, records show. AAF officials say they are seeking $1.6 in loans but neither AAF nor FRA produced records supporting that number.

STATEWIDE CONTRIBUTIONS

The newspaper investigation found the following additional details about political spending by AAF-related companies and officials:

■ AAF-related companies contributed $1,000 to state Rep. Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, so far in the 2014 election cycle.

Mayfield said she opposes the project despite the contributions and lobbying.

“Clearly the supporters of All Aboard Florida are prepared to invest heavily to advocate for their project, which is their right,” Mayfield said. “Whether or not their efforts persuade any members remains to be seen. I certainly will not be swayed.”

■ The AAF-related companies spent $365,000 since 2010 on federal lobbying activities.

■ FECI’s federal political committees contributed $10,500 to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Melbourne, and a total of $26,500 to 10 sitting members of the House of Representatives from Florida, including U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter.

Murphy now opposes the AAF project and donated $1,000 — the amount he received from FECI — to AAF’s opposition group Florida Not All Aboard, said his spokeswoman, Erin Moffet Hale.

“If you’re opposed to All Aboard Florida, why would you accept any dollars from them,” said Larry Casey, a spokesman for Murphy’s Republican opponent Carl Domino. “There is no way he (Domino) would accept one dollar, one dime from All Aboard Florida at any time.”

Nelson could not be reached for comment.

■ AAF-related companies paid about $1.2 million to Ballard Partners of Tallahassee since 2011 to lobby the state Legislature and the Scott administration.

■ The companies contributed $70,000 to Let’s Get to Work, Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s political committee, so far in the 2014 election cycle.

A spokesman for Scott’s campaign, Greg Blair, declined to address questions about the contributions to the Let’s Get to Work committee and the impact the money may have on the administration’s handling of the AAF project.

“The line of questioning seems to suggest that you are looking at this as an improper way for the company to influence the governor’s policy decisions,” Blair said in emails. “Governor Scott welcomes job creators to Florida. All Aboard Florida is a private venture that is not funded by taxpayer dollars.”

An email from a spokesman for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist, Brendan Gilfillan, said, “We have not taken any money from (AAF-related) folks.”

Daniel G. Newman, co-founder and president of the MapLight federal campaign finance watchdog group, said campaign contributions are part of the cost of doing business for some companies.

“In our broken system of money-dominated politics, politicians need a lot of money to run for office and stay there,” Newman said. “The No. 1 place to get this money is from industries and interest groups that want something from government. Financial investments in politics buy access and influence.”

ADDITIONAL FINDINGS

A Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers investigation found the parent companies of the All Aboard Florida passenger train project, the Fortress Investment Group of New York and Florida East Coast Industries of Miami, and their subsidiaries also made the following political expenditures:

■ $12,000 to state Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, so far in the 2014 election cycle

■ $6,500 to state Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam, R-Bartow (Atwater and Putnam serve in the Florida Cabinet along with Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi, R-Tampa. Bondi did not receive any contributions from AAF-related companies.)

■ $157,000 so far in the 2014 election cycle to a variety of Florida political committees whose activities are difficult to trace

■ $5,000 in lobbying fees to the Gunster, Yoakley & Stewart law firm of Tallahassee (Gunster employs state Senator Joe Negron, R-Stuart, who has come out against the project.)

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STATE LOBBYING FEES

Companies related to All Aboard Florida paid several consulting firms nearly $2.5 million since 2010 to lobby the Florida legislative and executive branches of government:

BALLARD PARTNERS, TALLAHASSEE

$480,000: Fortress Investment Group, New York

$700,000: Florida East Coast Industries, Miami

$20,000: Florida East Coast Railway, Jacksonville

$1,200,000: Ballard Partners total

THE RUBIN GROUP, FORT LAUDERDALE

$40,000: Florida East Coast Industries

$155,000: Florida East Coast Railway

$165,000: The Rubin Group total

GUNSTER, YOAKLEY & STEWART, TALLAHASSEE

$5,000: Florida East Coast Industries

AKERMAN SENTERFITT, TALLAHASSEE

$20,000: Fortress Investment Group

$15,000: Florida East Coast Industries

$35,000: Akerman Senterfit total

PITTMAN LAW GROUP, TALLAHASSEE

$50,000: Fortress Investment Group

LANDMARC STRATEGIES, TALLAHASSEE

$15,000: Fortress Investment Group

RAMBA CONSULTING GROUP, TALLAHASSEE

$15,000: Fortress Investment Group

SMITH BALLARD, TALLAHASSEE

$360,000: Florida East Coast Industries

FOLEY & LARDNER, TALLAHASSEE

$80,000: Florida East Coast Industries

$2,455,000: Total state lobbying fees since 2010

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FEDERAL LOBBYING FEES

Companies related to All Aboard Florida have paid several consulting firms  $335,000 since 2010 to lobby the federal government:

WILEY REIN, WASHINGTON, For telecommunications

$90,000: Fortress Investment Group, New York

ERNST & YOUNG, LONDON, For taxation and Internal Revenue Code

$105,000: Fortress Investment Group

PODESTA GROUP, WASHINGTON, For bankruptcy, housing and financial investments

$30,000: Fortress Investment Group

H.A. CUMBER & COMPANY, CORAL SPRINGS, For transportation

$80,000: Florida East Coast Railway, Jacksonville

FLORIDA EAST COAST INDUSTRIES, MIAMI

$30,000: Florida East Coast Industries, Miami

$335,000: Total federal lobbying fees since 2010

Source: MapLight nonprofit research organization

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FLORIDA CONGRESSIONAL CONTRIBUTIONS
Florida East Coast Industries, which owns All Aboard Florida, and its subsidiary Florida East Coast Railway contributed a total of $38,000 to several of Florida’s congressional representatives since 2010.
FLORIDA EAST COAST INDUSTRIES & OFFICIALS
$5,000: Bill Nelson, D-Melbourne
$6,500: John Mica, R-Winter Park
$2,500: Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Doral
$2,250: Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami
$1,250: Steve Southerland, R-Panama City
$1,000: Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville
$1,000: Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter
$1,000: Joe Garcia, D-Miami
$1,000: Daniel Webster, R-Winter Garden
$21,500: Total Florida East Coast Industries
FLORIDA EAST COAST RAILWAY & OFFICIALS
$5,500: Bill Nelson, D-Melbourne
$6,500: John Mica, R-Winter Park
$2,500: Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston
$1,000: Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Doral
$750: Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach
$250: Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami
$16,500: Total Florida East Coast Railway