Florida Elections Commission rules that political action committee controlled by Eric Robinson did not violate election law in regard to Martin Hyde mailer

4-1 vote follows Aug. 26 hearing

Editor’s note: This article was updated on Jan. 6 with comments from Eric Robinson.

Members and staff of the Florida Elections Commission participate in the Aug. 26 hearing via remote meeting technology. Attorney Ben Gibson is second from right in the third row. News Leader image

After a hearing lasting a bit shy of 30 minutes, the majority of the Florida Elections Commission (FEC) members agreed this week that a political action committee (PAC) handled by Venice CPA Eric Robinson did not violate state law in regard to the funding of a 2017 mailer that promoted Sarasota City Commission candidate Martin Hyde.

As FEC Assistant General Counsel Stephanie Cunningham explained the charge during the Aug. 26 hearing, the PAC Making a Better Tomorrow was accused of violating Florida Statute 106.143(3). She told the commissioners that because the City Commission elections are nonpartisan, state election law prevented Hyde from sending out a mailer that identified him as a Republican. However, she continued, Hyde said during a radio show interview that “it was suggested” to him that he contribute $4,000 to the Making a Better Tomorrow, which is controlled by Robinson. In turn, that PAC gave a $4,000 check to the Legal Reform Now electioneering communications organization (ECO), she continued. That ECO, which Robinson previously served as chair and treasurer, then gave the Republican Party of Sarasota County a $4,000 check, which Robinson had signed, Cunningham pointed out.

The party paid about $3,300, Cunningham said, to send out a mailer promoting Hyde for the City Commission seat he was seeking. Robinson also signed the check from the Republican Party to Andrick & Associates of Sarasota for the mailer, she added.

During the radio show interview, Cunningham noted, referring to the transcript, Hyde said, “‘I didn’t want to take the money out of my campaign and give it to the Republican Party directly.’”

“‘I sent the money to a PAC,’” Hyde continued. “‘Simple as that. It was a mechanism to get money to the GOP. … All I’m telling you is that is what was suggested, and that is what I did.’”

Then Cunningham told the FEC members that bank records showed that Hyde’s personal check for $4,000 went to Making a Better Tomorrow. Robinson is the chair and treasurer for that PAC, she added.

Then, “just days later,” Robinson signed a check turning over $4,000 from the ECO, Legal Reform Now Committee, to the Republican Party of Sarasota County.

Eric Robinson. Image from his Sarasota County School Board campaign website

Robinson is the former chair and treasurer of the ECO, Cunningham noted. He also is the treasurer of the Republican Party of Sarasota County and its former chair, she added. Further, she pointed out, Robinson is the chair of 26 active PACs and the former chair of 37 political committees, electioneering communications organizations, and committees of continuous existence.

During the same general time frame the $4,000 checks were being written, Cunningham noted, the Republican Party of Sarasota County spent a little less than $1,000 to publish a letter “setting forth its goals for the year and soliciting donations.”

Twelve days before the party received the $4,000, Cunningham continued, the party had only about $10,000 in its bank account.

Making a Better Tomorrow, Cunningham told the commissioners, “knowingly aided, abetted and advised a violation” of Florida Statute 106.143(3). That law says that a political advertisement circulated prior to an election must “[s]tate whether the advertisement and the cost of production is paid for or provided in kind by or at the expense of the entity publishing, displaying, broadcasting, or circulating the political advertisement.”

Cunningham also told the commissioners that staff recommended that they find that Making a Better Tomorrow violated Florida Statute 104.091(1). That law says, “Any person who knowingly aids, abets, or advises the violation of this [state election] code shall be punished in like manner as the principal offender.”

This is a partial transcript of the radio show interview between Cathy Cannon Antunes of Sarasota and Martin Hyde. Antunes is the interviewer. Image courtesy FEC

For the defense

Speaking on behalf of Robinson and Making a Better Tomorrow, Ben Gibson of the Shutts & Bowen law firm in Tallahassee pointed out to the commissioners that the money Hyde gave the PAC “was a legal contribution.”

“The undisputed facts do not support [the] conclusion” that Making a Better Tomorrow violated state law, he said. “There’s no evidence that a suggestion from the PAC led to Hyde’s making the $4,000 contribution, he added. “The respondent has denied that as well,” Gibson said, referring to Robinson.

Moreover, “In order to prove a violation,” Gibson continued, “you’d have to determine that the mailer actually violated [Florida Statute 106.143(3)]. … This is not the case, either.”

The mailer, Gibson said, “was sent out by the Republican Party of Sarasota. … There’s nothing in the record that shows that the mailer was sent out by [Hyde] or coordinated with the Republican Party of Sarasota.”

Even if Hyde had been responsible for the mailer, Gibson said, “The mailer does not state [Hyde’s] party affiliation,” which would have violated state law in a nonpartisan race. “It says the Republican Party of Sarasota supports Martin Hyde, which is permitted.”

The mailer noted Hyde’s belief in lower taxes and smart growth as reasons for the party’s backing, Gibson added.

State law does not prohibit a political party from supporting or endorsing a candidate for a nonpartisan race, he continued. Further, Gibson pointed out, parties can coordinate with nonpartisan candidates in regard to the mailing of materials offering support to those candidates.

“The one caveat,” he added, is that the advertising cannot state the party affiliation of the nonpartisan candidate or publicly represent that that candidate is a member of a party.

In a statement to The Sarasota News Leader, Robinson wrote that Legal Reform Now did not write a check to Making a Better Tomorrow. “This false accusation was previously dismissed by the FEC …” Further, Robinson continued, “I am not a supporter of Mr. Hyde and would never actively do anything to help him in any way.” Robinson also pointed out, “[I]f I was ever made aware that I was doing anything to remotely help Mr. Hyde I would have stepped away from the engagement immediately.”

Finally, Robinson wrote, “I do want to point out that I have been the the subject of a massive smear campaign. Every false accusation has been reviewed by an independent third party and found to be false. Every single one.”

Rebuttal and a vote

During the hearing, when Vice Chair Joni Alexis Poitier asked Cunningham about Gibson’s testimony, Cunningham replied that Hyde “is the underlying violator. … Martin Hyde’s intent,” Cunningham continued, was to campaign with party affiliation. “He was looking to skirt the Election Code.”

Hyde knew the $4,000 would go to the PAC, which would turn it over to another political committee and then to the Republican Party, Cunningham said. Thus, Hyde violated Florida Statute 106.104(3), she pointed out. “You can see that intent in his words” in the transcript of the radio program interview.

Therefore, she said, Making a Better Tomorrow aided and abetted Hyde, “to make his plan a reality.”

She again stressed that the transfers of the $4,000 occurred “all within days of each other.”

These sections of the FEC staff findings in the case lay out the timeline of the transfers of funds and other, related incidents. Making a Better Tomorrow is the respondent. Image courtesy FEC

When Poitier asked whether the mailer made it clear Hyde is a Republican, Cunningham responded that it did not. However, she continued, Hyde’s intent was to get a mailer sent out with the word “Republican” on it, “along with his name. … And that’s what he got when he sent the four grand to the political committee.”

Later, Cunningham pointed out, “I think you just have to look at the facts [and] look at the bank account of the Republican Party” at the time the transfers took place.

Gibson countered, “Regardless of what Mr. Hyde’s intent was, I think you have to look at what actually went out …” The mailer, he emphasized, “was lawful in every aspect of the statute.”

Cunningham’s description about how the transactions transpired, he said, was a matter of assumption. Nothing in the factual record, he added, supported the assertions of a violation on the part of Making a Better Tomorrow.

FEC Commissioner Jason Todd Allen finally made the motion that said the commissioners had determined that Making a Better Tomorrow had not violated state law, and FEC Commissioner Barbra Stern seconded it.

Vice Chair Poitier and Commissioner Kymberlee Curry Smith joined them in approving the motion.

FEC Commissioner John Martin Hayes cast a “Nay” vote, resulting in the 4-1 decision.

Because of health reasons, FEC Commissioner Patricia Hollarn was unable to participate in enough of the hearing to vote.