Ban on charitable donations from ‘America’s enemies’ clears first House hurdle
TALLAHASSEE, FLA. 3/09/22-Rep. Jenna Persons-Mulicka, R-Fort Myers, left, urges the House to pass her bill reforming alimony, Wednesday at the Capitol in Tallahassee. COLIN HACKLEY PHOTO

‘We cannot allow America’s enemies to take advantage of our open society to manipulate policy.’

A bill that would prohibit charitable organizations in Florida from soliciting or accepting contributions or other assistance from seven “foreign countries of concern” is advancing after clearing its first House hurdle.

If passed, the measure (HB 1327) would make it illegal for charities to accept any financial gifts from the governments of China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Syria and Venezuela. Contributions from their government officials, political parties, companies, organizations, agents or agencies acting on their behalf, and any person living in those countries who isn’t a permanent resident or citizen of the United States, would also be banned.

Fort Myers Republican Rep. Jenna Persons-Mulicka, the bill’s sponsor, said America is “under constant threat from foreign enemies” whose tactics are more covert today than in the past.

She pointed to the Chinese spy balloon the U.S. military shot down last February, the FBI’s raid of a Chinese “police station” in New York City the month before, and a warning FBI Director Christopher Wray gave members of Congress on Wednesday about Chinese cyberattacks meant to “wreak havoc and cause real-world harm to American citizens and communities.”

“We cannot allow America’s enemies to take advantage of our open society to manipulate policy,” Persons-Mulicka said.

“A national security assessment published in 2023 by the Office of National Intelligence reports that foreign interests are using a variety of tools like front groups to build influence at the state and local level to shift U.S. policy. What does that look like? Money to fund litigation (and) deceptive propaganda, funneled through domestic charities who use those funds to influence local government policies.”

On Thursday, the members of the House Regulatory Reform and Economic Development Subcommittee voted to advance HB 1327, which also calls for the creation of an “Honest Services Registry” that Florida residents could view online. A charity could request to be added to the registry if it attests it does not support, take funds or influence from a foreign country of concern.

The vote wasn’t unanimous. Miami Democratic Rep. Ashley Gantt questioned the legality of the measure, citing a July 2021 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that found a similar California law unconstitutional.

She voted “no,” explaining that she was concerned about the humanitarian implications of Person-Mulicka’s proposal, particularly for Cubans in her district, and that the bill wouldn’t hold up in court.

“I know we often use California as the antithesis of what we want Florida to be,” she said. “But I have friends (with) family members in Cuba who have different organizations (for) helping people, (and) I don’t know if we’re subsuming innocent people who don’t necessarily share the views of their government but are citizens of that country.”

Persons-Mulicka said she is familiar with the California law and the Supreme Court decision, which came after the Koch family-backed Prosperity Foundation and the conservative Thomas More Law Center sued.

She noted that her bill is different because it focuses only on seven hostile nations. The California measure, meanwhile, required charitable organizations to give the state copies of their federal tax forms containing donor information.

“It’s very narrowly tailored to … a government interest, which is protecting us from the threat we see is out there,” she said. “It’s time to be proactive, and when the federal government fails, the state (can) stand up and we can do what’s needed to protect our freedom and protect our rights.”

HB 1327 comes less than a year after lawmakers banned foreign countries of concern, their citizens and companies from buying agricultural land in Florida and any property within 10 miles of a military installation or critical infrastructure facility.

“Today, we’re really recognizing the threats and taking action,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said when he signed the law May 8.

Persons-Mulicka’s bill is to next go before the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee, after which it would have one committee stop before reaching the chamber floor.

An identical companion bill (SB 1458) Gainesville Republican Sen. Keith Perry is carrying awaits a hearing before the first of three committees to which it was referred last month.

Jesse Scheckner

Jesse Scheckner has covered South Florida with a focus on Miami-Dade County since 2012. His work has been recognized by the Hearst Foundation, Society of Professional Journalists, Florida Society of News Editors, Florida MMA Awards and Miami New Times. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JesseScheckner.


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