Agriculture Secretary Nikki Fried is standing by her accusation Tuesday night that state university trustees were required to donate $100,000 to Gov, Ron DeSantis‘ campaign or they would not be reappointed. Yet she provided little to back that up other than anecdotal examples of some big donors serving on university boards.
At the same time, Fried’s Democratic gubernatorial campaign on Wednesday also sought to turn the focus more on the practice of governors appointing big campaign donors to boards — rather than on Fried’s stark assertion that DeSantis requires trustees to pay or lose their appointments.
Her campaign on Wednesday was responding to an inquiry about Fried’s statement at a gubernatorial candidate forum Tuesday night hosted by the United Faculty of Florida professors’ union.
Specifically, Fried, while participating in the virtual forum with Democratic rivals U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist and Sen. Annette Taddeo, said: “Our current boards of trustees across the state were required to give a campaign contribution to Ron DeSantis in the amount of $100,000. And if they didn’t give him the campaign contribution, they were not reappointed to the boards.”
Later Tuesday night, Republican Party of Florida Executive Director Helen Aguirre Ferré called Fried’s allegation “a bald faced lie.”
On Wednesday, Fried’s campaign spokesman, Drew Godinich, responded.
“DeSantis’ appointments are stacked with his biggest donors — and the Boards of Trustees are no different,” he said.
“She stands by her comments from last night, and I think it’s very clear that there’s a quid pro quo to obtain those appointments,” he later added.
Campaign contribution records are mixed, showing some university trustees are big donors, and some are not. There is little in the state’s campaign finance data that would point to a $100,000 minimum or which would suggest trustees who do not provide big donations risk losing their positions.
On Wednesday, Ferré responded to the second-day response from Fried’s campaign by doubling down on her own assertion that the claim was a lie.
The University of Florida, which has been the site of recent controversy involving DeSantis’ politics, is, as the state’s flagship university, arguably the most prestigious university board appointment. Chair Morteza “Mori” Hosseini‘s company ICI Homes has donated $106,000 to DeSantis’ Friends of Ron DeSantis political committee and another $158,000 to the Republican Party of Florida over the current, 2020 and 2018 election cycles, according to the Florida Division of Elections.
UF Trustee Rahul Patel has donated $170,000 to Friends of Ron DeSantis and $55,000 to the RPOF during those three cycles. UF Trustee James Heavener has donated $250,000 to Friends of Ron DeSantis and $25,000 to the RPOF, while his Silver City companies have donated another $65,000 to the RPOF. UF Trustee Richard P. Cole donated $60,000 to Friends of Ron DeSantis and $50,000 to the RPOF. UF Trustee Anita Zucker has donated $105,000 to Friends of Ron DeSantis. Christopher Corr‘s company Rayonier gave $15,000 to Friends of Ron DeSantis and $45,000 to the RPOF, and could reach $100,000 if donations to other Republican groups are counted.
On the other hand, UF Trustees Thomas G. Kuntz and Marsha D. Powers appear to have donated nothing. Trustees David Brandon, Fred S. Ridley, and Daniel T. O’Keefe gave little or nothing, though they all are partners in big law firms that also do lobbying, and which make frequent campaign contributions, as nearly all lobbying firms do.
There always is the prospect that any of the trustees might have donated through obscure private companies or opaque political committees, which can be hard to identify with any specific individual. Heavener, for example, is best known for his private, for-profit university Full Sail University, or his holding company, The Heavener Company. However, many of his political activities are run through some real estate and management companies that share the words Silver City. Heavener, though, also gives generously to politics under his own name, which Kuntz, Powers, and the others have not done.
Fried’s campaign provided a handful of examples to support the contention that DeSantis’ boards are stacked with his biggest donors. Florida has 13 state universities.
Her campaign offered campaign donation data this year from Hosseini, Cole, and Patel at UF, along with one university trustee at Florida International University, three at the University of Central Florida, and two at the University of South Florida.
Of those, only Hosseini, FIU Trustee Carlos Duart, and USF Trustee Leslie Muma gave $100,000, based on the campaign donations tabulated by Fried’s campaign.