'Dark money donor' in Charter Amendment ID'd
Updated: Feb 27, 2022
SARASOTA — For the past couple of weeks, speculation has swirled around a mysterious $100,000 donation to the Tallahassee-based Sun Coast Alliance, a political action committee that’s supporting a referendum to repeal single-member districts in Sarasota County.
Now, an activist says she believes there’s a connection to a wealthy developer and former State Sen. Pat Neal, whose Neal Communities has numerous developments in the county.
Self-described citizen investigator and community activist Cathy Antunes spoke about Neal’s possible connection to the PAC during a press conference in downtown Sarasota Friday morning.
Antunes laid out her findings earlier Friday morning in her blog post The Detail.
For weeks, county voters have been receiving mailers all urging a “yes” vote on both ballot measures in the Tuesday, March 8, special election.
The mailers indicate they were paid for by Sun Coast Alliance, whose listed address is actually a UPS store on Bee Ridge Road in Sarasota.
The rules of the Florida Division of Elections require a PAC involved in local elections to register with the local supervisor of elections.
Contrary to those rules, Sun Coast has not registered with Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner’s office, Antunes said.
One of those ballot measures is a referendum seeking to repeal the single-member district amendment to the county charter and returning to a countywide system of electing county commissioners, although the words “single-member district” do not appear in the ballot question.
The other item is the renewal of the 1-mill property tax that benefits county schools.
County commissioners have made no secret of their dislike for the new system, which was overwhelmingly approved by 60% of the voters in 2018.
The Sun Coast Alliance is one of many political committees run by William “Stafford” Jones of Tallahassee. In late January, Sun Coast received a donation of $100,000 from a committee called Serious Conservatives C4, also run by Jones. Serious Conservatives C4 is a nonprofit organization, according to a tax form, and is not required to disclose donor’s names.
The source of that $100,000 contribution was unnamed until Antunes managed to trace the possible link to Neal.
While following the trail of so-called dark money is difficult, Antunes learned that in 2020-21, Neal contributed $750,000 to Serious Conservatives, which is also run by Jones.
What remains unclear is if Serious Conservatives is the same committee as Serious Conservatives C4. Antunes’ research of records maintained by the Florida Division of Elections reveals only one political committee with the name Serious Conservatives. Neal could not be reached for comment for this story Friday.
Antunes concluded her blog post writing, “‘Serious Conservatives’ fails to list the 100K ‘Conservatives’ contribution, or an expenditure to ‘Sun Coast Alliance.’ Why? What’s up with the accounting here? Mr. Jones?”
“The entire game is to confuse voters,” Antunes said. “What I’m offering is clarity.”
Opponents of the effort to repeal special member districts have claimed the cost of running a countywide election is prohibitive, making it impossible for smaller-funded candidate to succeed, giving control of the commission to a group of big-money developers such as Neal. Kindra Muntz, president of the Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections, which championed single-member districts in 2018 and is fighting to keep them in place now, summed up the situation succinctly.
Kindra Muntz “There is an unprecedented level of obscurity in this Charter Referendum campaign,” Muntz said in a press release announcing the news conference. “They’re not only not telling us who they are — they’re also failing to meet required financial disclosure deadlines.”