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Speaker spends lavishly for GOP

Private planes, pricey dinners, fine cigars -- all in the name of advancing the agenda.

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ELI ZHANG, Tampa Bay Times Staff Writers, Tampa Bay Times

Private planes, pricey dinners, fine cigars -- all in the name of advancing the agenda.

TALLAHASSEE -- Even before Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran came to dominate Tallahassee, he declared himself an archenemy of special interests.

"I will proudly declare war on all the special interests .?.?. all the Gucci-loafing, shoe-wearing special interests, powers-that-be," Corcoran told House members, as he thundered against a plan to expand Medicaid coverage to more Floridians. "Come to war with us. I'll fight. And if it costs me my political career or yours, so be it."

That was early in 2015, shortly after the career Tallahassee operative effectively took control of the Republican Party of Florida's finances. Since then, a big part of the cigar-loving House speaker's war against special interests has involved taking and then spending their money to fly on private planes, dine at pricey restaurants and buy thousands of dollars worth of cigars.

He makes no apologies, saying it's all part of the fundraising process that ensures true, blue conservative Republicans control the Florida House of Representatives.

"If you waste money in politics, chances are you don't win campaigns, especially the tough ones," the Land O'Lakes Republican said, brushing off questions about political spending that sometimes seems more in line with the Kardashians than with a champion of fiscal conservatism.

•?Napa Valley junkets that included wine tours and an $8,000 dinner tab at California's sumptuous French Laundry restaurant

•?More than $400,000 to charter private planes

•?More than $1,000 for cuff links

•?More than $11,000 at Morton's steakhouses, $15,000 at Ruth's Chris and $29,000 at Tampa's Capital Grille restaurant, a favorite haunt for Corcoran.

These state GOP expenditures, revealed on campaign finance reports, are all part of electing Republicans to the Florida House, Corcoran said. The bottom line speaks for itself.

"We successfully defended every single House GOP incumbent and even flipped a Democrat seat to the GOP," Corcoran, 52, said of the 2016 Florida House campaign operations he oversaw before formally taking the reins of the House. "By continuing our party's winning streak, we have been able to continue moving Florida forward in creating jobs, lowering taxes, improving education, reducing regulations and cracking down on illegal immigration."

Campaign donations to the Florida GOP -- not taxpayer money -- pay for Corcoran and other Republican House leaders' dinners at expense-account steakhouses and stays at $400-a-night hotels. Few people are complaining, even though the once mighty Florida GOP overall is raising a fraction of what it used to. The money comes from myriad businesses, from utilities and insurance and health care companies to agricultural interests and state contractors.

"As long as these companies and these contributors get the government they want, they don't mind contributing that lavish money for that lavish spending," said Plant City Republican Dan Raulerson, who resigned from the Florida House in August for health reasons.

He recalled wondering why Corcoran preferred meeting with him at Tampa's Capital Grille rather than a less expensive restaurant like Outback.

• • •

A few years ago, it was virtually impossible for the public to know who was responsible for the money raised and spent by the state GOP, because the party served as depository for so many Republican players: State senators, House members, the governor and statewide elected officials and assorted others raised campaign funds for and drew money out of the state party. That changed at the start of 2015, when state party officers elected state Rep. Blaise Ingoglia of Spring Hill as party chairman, rather than the candidate backed by Gov. Rick Scott.

Since then, the Republican Party of Florida has largely been viewed in Tallahassee as the Republican Party of Richard Corcoran. Scott and state Senate Republicans stopped raising money for the party, opting instead to rely on their own increasingly important political committees to ensure they have full control over how the money is spent.

A party that used to be a three-legged stool in terms of money coming in -- raised by the governor, Republicans in the Senate and Republicans in the House -- is now largely an offshoot of the Florida House.

State Republican Chairman Ingoglia declined to comment for this article.

"I am proud of today's Republican Party of Florida, which is more transparent and accountable than it has ever been," Corcoran said.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, the frontrunner for the Republican gubernatorial nomination and a longtime state party cheerleader, no longer raises money for the state party; lately he is focused on promoting the interests of his main gubernatorial rival.

The pollster for Corcoran's expected gubernatorial campaign has been paid both by the party and by his political committee, Watchdog PAC. Same with a digital media consultant, and with Corcoran's main political lieutenant, a 28-year-old operative named James Blair, whom the party has reimbursed more than $1.5 million for party expenses put on Blair's charge card.

Credit cards are a sensitive topic with activists and politicians involved with the state party. Nearly a decade ago, the party was dogged by scandals surrounding the profligate spending when several legislative leaders used party charge cards for political expenses.

The Times/Herald revealed multiple problems with then-Speaker Marco Rubio's charge cards, including his charging personal items on the party card and in one case double-billing $2,400 in plane tickets to the state party and state taxpayers. Legislative leaders and their aides spent so freely on their charge cards, they struggled to explain even major expenses.

Corcoran was Rubio's chief of staff during the height of the state GOP's charge card spending spree, charging tens of thousands of dollars a month at times for posh hotels, dinners with Rubio, limos, hand-crafted chairs for top GOP officials, even $6,700 for a Rubio family reunion in Georgia. Corcoran never could explain how the reunion wound up on his party card.

The state party stopped doling out so many credit cards in the aftermath of those scandals -- which culminated in prison time for former party chairman Jim Greer -- but Corcoran never saw much of a problem with them.

The practice of legislative leaders charging meals to the party, he said at the time, was "more pure" than when lobbyists commonly bought meals for legislators. "I will not apologize for one penny of money we spent to push the special interests out the door," Corcoran said.

Likewise, today he says it is far preferable to charter private planes frequently than hitch rides on lobbyists' planes, a practice he barred in the Florida House.

Still, as Corcoran touts his commitment to ethics and transparency, and his antagonism to special interests in Tallahassee, he opens himself up to charges that he hypocritically relies on those influence peddlers to live an opulent lifestyle.

"If you look at where the money comes from and his constant attacks on social interests, that doesn't pass the smell test. It's somebody saying one thing and doing another," said Ray Pilon of Sarasota, another Republican former state representative critical of Corcoran's domineering leadership style. "Hypocrisy would be a kind word for the situation. To me, he talks out of both sides of his mouth."

In addition to his legislative salary of $29,300 a year, the speaker also earns $175,000 working for a law firm with an extensive lobbying practice, Broad and Cassel, which also paid Rubio when he was speaker. What Corcoran does for the firm is a mystery.

The firm's website notes the practice areas for most of its lawyers, but for Corcoran mostly touts his legislative leadership.

"You want to ask any question about the firm, call my CEO," Corcoran said when asked to identify his clients and what he does for Broad and Cassel.

His CEO, David Brown, sent a message back to the Tampa Bay Times that the firm "never" discusses employees or clients.

Corcoran also declined to say why he chose to use the Legislature's taxpayer-subsidized health insurance plan for his family, rather than the law firm's.

The speaker dismissed the notion that it's hypocritical to cast oneself as a bulwark against lobbyists while at the same time leaning on them to pay for his cigars, charter planes and a winery visit.

"My record is clear. While others have talked about taking on special interests, I actually did it," he said. "In the Florida House, we passed the most aggressive ethics reforms in the country, restricting the influence of lobbyists and special interest. That's not a claim, that's not talk, that's real action."

Corporate campaign donations flow so freely in Tallahassee today, it's not clear whether the GOP spending tens of thousands of dollars on trips to Napa Valley or Boca Grande's luxurious Gasparilla Inn & Club is more about the enjoyment of House members and their families or enticing donors to write checks.

Corcoran said he has cut back on out-of state-fundraising junkets, which give lobbyists an opportunity to socialize closely with legislators for extended periods. The trips "serve as the financial foundation of House campaigns because they work," he said.

Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Fasano, a former longtime Republican legislator and close friend of Corcoran's, has long lamented what he sees as profligate spending by legislators who raise and spend campaign donations through the state party. Fasano used to oversee House political campaigns, but said the rise in swanky spending by party officials began a few years later, when Corcoran was a top political adviser for now-Sen. Rubio.

"That spending culture really started when Marco Rubio was the incoming speaker," Fasano lamented, dismissing the suggestion that lavish or wasteful political spending doesn't matter when it does not involve public dollars.

"We should always be aware of how individuals are spending other people's money, regardless who that person is, especially when the money is coming from donors," Fasano said. "It could be (from) a person on a fixed income that wants to give $5 or $10 and help the party buy stamps."

As he heads into his final year as House speaker and into a likely gubernatorial primary, Corcoran is more focused on his political committee than the state party but said contributors have nothing to worry about when it comes to how the GOP House and state party spend money.

"Donors are usually concerned that their donations are going to win the campaigns they support," he said, arguing that check writers to the Florida House political effort receive a tremendous return on their investments.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Adam C. Smith at Follow @AdamSmithTimes.

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