Big money scandals pile up as election season ends

State and local level campaign-finance sloppiness makes for some hefty embarrassments

“For over two decades, our system of non-partisan elections has helped move our community forward in a cooperative spirit that has allowed us to get things done in a way that protects all voters and taxpayers.”

– Democratic fundraiser Jim Pugh



$150 million

Amount Orlando businessman and hotelier Nikesh A. Patel allegedly defrauded a Milwaukee company, according to an FBI investigation



Amount Patel donated to the Republican Party of Florida in the name of Rick Scott’s re-election campaign following a fundraiser in which Patel is pictured with Scott



Amount Orlando investor and Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts board chairman Jim Pugh donated to unregistered Florida electioneering organization Progress & Prosperity for Orange County.

Everything but pride

When the black crows on the horizon start squawking the “who-whos” of some menacing iteration of “Sympathy for the Devil,” you can almost smell the near-election scandals rising behind them. Even after two years of talking “ethics” and feigning “transparency,” nobody expected October to bring with it the dulcet tones of civility or even legality in state and local politics. It’s election season, folks; you are presently in the process of being bought and sold.

We’re not necessarily being paranoid here. Latest on the too-wealthy-to-understand bandstand was the revelation last week that 30-year-old opportunist (er, millionaire) Nik Patel got the takedown treatment from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. That’s the guy the city of Orlando hung its hopes of luxury lodgings on earlier this year, when he made plans to renovate the beat-down old downtown Sheraton (née Renaissance) – he paid $17 million and was set to invest another $17 million and save the Creative Village – which, naturally, made him one of Orlando Business Journal’s “40 under 40.”

You know what that means!

At issue is that Patel threw a fancy fundraiser for Gov. Rick Scott’s campaign in April, tossed the governor’s party $100,000 while posing with said bald man and went on to – allegedly – sell $150 million in fake loans in Milwaukee. Looks bad, right? (He’s completely innocent says his attorney, Mark NeJame.)

Well, it’s a timely controversy, seeing as Republicans just tried to throw Charlie Crist into likewise fraudulent donor Scott Rothstein’s lap over the past few weeks, even though there’s evidence that their accusation may not be true. The horrors. We are in accusation season.

Democrats immediately called for Scott to return the cash – something that was apparently done midday on Oct. 3, because hot potato! – and everyone returned from Ponzi to Fonzi, because “ayyyyyyyy.”

While these big-ticket scandals play a lousy game of airtime tennis in the run-up to the election, reverberations of connected scandals are starting to pop up in the local realm. On Sept. 30, the Orlando Sentinel reported that longtime Republican Teresa Jacobs confidante-in-chief – and former executive director of the Christian Coalition of Florida, who may or may not be celebrating Pride this year – John Dowless might have made an error in not reporting his electioneering communications organization, Progress & Prosperity in Orange County, to the state. “It was never an attempt, obviously, to hide anything,” he said, according to the newspaper.

Well, there are only three reported donors to this Progress & Prosperity accident – via the county elections website – and one of them is Patel. One of the others is Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts board chairman (and noted Democratic fundraiser) Jim Pugh. He wrote a check for $25,000 on May 14.

Without going too deep into the rabbit hole, it’s worth noting that Pugh wrote that check just six days before Democrat Val Demings abruptly left the race against Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs. Oh, and also, Pugh was a driving force behind the unseemly begging that saw Jacobs kiting a $25 million check last year to save the performing arts center.

So now we see that Progress & Prosperity gathered its limited finances together to send out a mailer in favor of Rene “Coach P” Plasencia, the Republican running against huge arts – and arts center – supporter state Rep. Joe Saunders, D-Orlando. Hmm. We reached out to Pugh via email and by phone with very specific questions about the situation, but alas we only received pin-drop silence in return. Silence, that is, if you don’t consider the fact that a press release sent out on Sept. 29 by newly created group Citizens for Orange County told us that Pugh is currently strategizing with Republican former county Mayor Rich Crotty and chamber veteran Wayne Wolfson to undermine “Question C” on the November ballot. Question C, largely supported by the left (and some on the right) seeks to make county elections partisan, like they used to be before 1992, because really, they are anyway. You wouldn’t be getting those vituperative mailers in August if the situation were anything otherwise.

Regardless, the moral of this (part of the) story is that we potentially have one of the area’s most notable Democrats supporting nonpartisan local designations while funding a partisan campaign against the state’s first (ish) elected gay representative, who happens to have just starred in a production of Rent. Also, Republicans Jacobs and currently campaigning Orange County Clerk of Courts Eddie Fernandez (and likely Dowless) will be at Come Out With Pride exploiting your weaker “nonpartisan” sensibilities. If it’s up to them, your politics are for rent.

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