Chair of PAC that sent out mailers seeking to overturn Single-Member Districts voting system denies that developer Pat Neal paid for them

Community activist Antunes provides documentation to support her theory that Neal is the source

Cathy Antunes of Sarasota addresses the attendees at the Feb. 25 press conference in downtown Sarasota. Image courtesy Citizens for District Power

A Sarasota resident contends that she used details in political action committee (PAC) financial documents, which had been filed with the Florida Division of Elections, to deduce that former state Sen. Pat Neal, founder of Neal Communities, paid for mailers that have urged citizens to overturn the Single-Member Districts voting method for county commissioners.

However, the chair of the PAC that sent out the mailers has denied to The Sarasota News Leader that Neal had any involvement in the process.

The mailers from Sun Coast Alliance urged Sarasota County voters to repeal the Single-Member Districts section of the Sarasota County Charter. That amendment won approval of nearly 60% of voters in November 2018. Only citizens who live in the same district as candidates for County Commission may vote for those candidates. Prior to passage of that amendment — except for a two-year period in the early 1990s — all commissioners were elected countywide.

The current commissioners have argued that Single-Member Districts is “bad governance.” They voted unanimously on Dec. 7, 2021 to conduct a March 8 Special Election on the issue. (See the related articles in this issue.)

As indicated by a Feb. 23 memo from County Administrator Jonathan Lewis to the board members, the election will cost the county about $315,000.

During their regular meeting on Feb. 23, the commissioners unanimously approved Lewis’ request that any expenditure of funds for the election come out of the county’s budget for this fiscal year, which began on Oct. 1, 2021.

Two days later, on Feb. 25, as part of a press conference at the Sarasota County Administration Center in downtown Sarasota — and in a blog she established called The Detaillong-time community activist Cathy Antunes explained her reasoning about Neal’s involvement with the Sun Coast Alliance mailers, using a flow chart.

Sun Coast Alliance, whose chair is William Stafford Jones, lists its address as 115 E. Park Ave., Suite 1, in Tallahassee, Antunes began in her blog.

In 2020 and 2021, Sarasota/Manatee developer Pat Neal pumped a total of $750,000” into a PAC called Conservatives, she continued. Jones also administers that PAC, she noted, and it, too, is located at the 115 E Park Ave. address in Tallahassee, which is home to the Coates Law Firm.

This is the flow chart that Cathy Antunes used to show the alleged connection of Pat Neal to the Sun Coast Alliance mailers.  The chair of Sun Coast Alliance says the chart is inaccurate. Image courtesy of Cathy Antunes via The Detail

“Mr. Neal stands to benefit from a return to at large voting in Sarasota County Commission races,” Antunes pointed out in her blog.

“At-large voting has been a way for special interests to dilute accountability in elections,” Antunes said during the Feb. 25 press conference.

Neal has been engaged for years in building new communities in Sarasota County, winning County Commission approval for those developments. Most recently, he assisted Rex Jensen, the developer of Lakewood Ranch, in a presentation to the commissioners about Jensen’s proposal for a new type of community that Jensen envisions for the next expansion of Lakewood Ranch that is planned for Sarasota County. For it to be designed as Jensen wishes, the commissioners would need to approve a Comprehensive Plan amendment related to the county’s 2050 Plan provisions for new communities east of Interstate 75.

Antunes further noted in her blog that the Conservatives PAC listed a $100,000 contribution to Serious Conservatives, which is another PAC that Jones administers, also based at the 115 E. Park Ave. address in Tallahassee.

There is only ONE political committee registered with the Florida Division of Elections with the ‘Serious Conservatives’ name,” she continued. It was established in 2020, she wrote.

In January, Sun Coast Alliance reported a $100,000 donation from a Florida PAC identified as “Serious Conservatives C4,” she pointed out. That PAC also is located at 115 E. Park Ave. in Tallahassee, according to the Florida Division of Elections. However, Antunes emphasized, No “Serious Conservatives C4” PAC is registered with the state, just the “Serious Conservatives” PAC.

This listing on the Division of Elections website shows the Serious Conservatives C4 contribution to Sun Coast Alliance in January. Image from the Division of Elections

“‘C4’ appears to be either a typo or red herring designed to confuse [people],” Antunes wrote.

“‘Serious Conservatives’ fails to list the [$100,000] ‘Conservatives’ contribution, or an expenditure to ‘Sun Coast Alliance,’” she continued. “Why? What’s up with the accounting here? Mr Jones?”

Then Antunes pointed out, “PAC funding maneuvering is designed to obscure donors. “

Moreover, Antunes continued, the Conservatives PAC paid KeyPoint Communication $57,500 from November 2020 through January 2022. The owner/director of KeyPoint Communication is [Maryann] Grgic, Antunes added, “the significant other of Sarasota City Commissioner Hagen Brody. Mr. Brody recently filed to run for County Commission.”

This is one of the listings of money that the Conservatives PAC paid to KeyPoint Communication. Image from the Division of Elections website

A Sarasota News Leader review of Grgic’s LinkedIn account found that she served as community relations and governmental affairs director for Neal Communities from September 2009 until January 2016. She established KeyPoint Communication in November 2017, the listing says.

The News Leader also learned from Florida Division of Elections records that 1680 Fruitville Road is the location of KeyPoint Communication’s offices. That address is in downtown Sarasota.

Further, the News Leader viewed a number of photos taken by staff of the Observer newspapers that show Brody and Grgic together at local events, with Brody’s arm around Grgic.

Antunes then pointed out in her blog, “Looks like voters can expect a lot more dark money ads trying to get them to overturn single member districts. If Pat Neal’s $750,000 donation is any indication, the dark money slush fund machine is in overdrive.”

She invited readers to verify her research on the Division of Elections website.

An emphatic refuting of the allegations

In response to News Leader questions about Antunes’ allegations, Stafford Jones wrote in a March 1 email that “the flow chart that has been floating around is entirely inaccurate. Serious Conservatives has not donated to Sun Coast Alliance. Serious Conservatives has not donated to Serious Conservative C4 [sic], which is a different organization. Pat Neal has not donated to Serious Conservatives, which is a political committee, or Serious Conservative C4, which is an issue education organization. Pat Neal has not donated to Sun Coast Alliance.”

This document on the Florida Division of Elections website shows a $100,000 from Pat Neal to the Conservatives PAC. Image from the Division of Elections

The News Leader was unable to find any record of Serious Conservatives C4 in Florida Division of Corporations records or in the national GuideStar listings of nonprofit organizations. When it asked Jones for clarification about the organization, he wrote in a March 2 email, “It’s not a political committee. It’s an issue education organization. It’s not done any activity that requires it to file with the Division of Elections.”

Insights into ‘dark money’ in Florida

Citizens for District Power, a Sarasota organization that has been fighting to keep the Single-Member Districts voting system in the county Charter, has provided a number of posts on its Facebook page regarding the influence of “dark money” in Florida elections.

This is a graphic on the Citizens for District Power Facebook page in January. Image from Facebook

Among those posts, leaders of Citizens for District Power referred readers to a 2016 article in the Florida Times-Union, which is based in Jacksonville. The post called the article “a strong background piece … that lays out the twisted reality of Florida elections, sleazy tactics, dark money, and the power it buys.”

Reporter Tia Mitchell wrote in that article, “State campaign finance rules require political committees to provide basic information about their missions, the candidates they are backing and issues they support or oppose. Often that information is too general or too vague to provide a clear understanding of the committee’s focus. Place holder information like ‘to be determined’ is accepted by the state and never updated despite a requirement in law that once a change is necessary new documents should be filed within 10 days.”

Mitchell added, “A Times-Union analysis of the nearly 1,000 political committees active in Florida found that one out of every seven committees are operating in the shadows. Even after combing through public records, various state databases and internet search results, it’s difficult to pinpoint why these committees were created or whom they are intended to benefit. While their income and expenses are reported, the details of those expenditures are not. Also left unclear is who exactly is calling the shots.”

Further, Mitchell wrote, “Florida’s biggest dark money committees are frequently interrelated, passing money to each other in ways that make the elections process here even murkier. Of the 10 dark money committees in Florida that raised the most money from 2014 to November 2016, the most recent election cycle [at the time the article was published], eight have financial connections to one another and the Republican Party. In that time, at least $2.2 million flowed between them.”

2 thoughts on “Chair of PAC that sent out mailers seeking to overturn Single-Member Districts voting system denies that developer Pat Neal paid for them”

  1. Thank you, Cathy Antunes, for your ongoing efforts to expose the cesspool of corruption that our local government has become. Importantly, your work connects the dots between the real bosses and their elected puppets.

    Those in the know appreciate everything you do for our community.

    Thank you, SNL, for reporting on this crucial matter. Educating our voters is the key to turning our county back toward a truly representative democracy.

    Reply
  2. Great research. I often wonder why someone doesn’t publish a list of donors, amount given, and the political
    C4 organizations (or candidates) receiving their donations. It seems the information is camouflaged, and of course no legislator wants to propose any laws in contrast to their own benefit.

    Reply

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