Campaign finance reports filed on Manatee health care surtax battle

Bradenton Herald StaffJuly 11, 2013 

MANATEE -- Follow the money, and it might help show who paid for the campaign that last month helped defeat a proposed sales tax increase to pay for health care programs in Manatee County.

But the answers don't come easily, and they are not all entirely clear.

Campaign finance reports show some of those who paid for robocalls and fliers opposing the sales surtax, which was soundly defeated by voters June 18.

One who was particularly active in opposing passage of the health care surtax was former Sarasota Republican Party Chair Eric Robinson, husband of Sarasota County Commissioner Christine Robinson.

He chaired two organizations, Manatee Against Taxation and Common Cents for Manatee, which generated most of the anti-tax fliers and automatic telephone calls received by voters before the June 18 election.

Robinson, managing partner of Robinson, Hanks, Young and Roberts, CPA, of Venice, said Wednesday the two organizations he was affiliated with spent about $60,000 to help defeat the surtax.

Asked why he was involved, he said he is a professional political treasurer who works for dozens of different candidates and campaigns.

Asked the names of contributors to the organizations, he replied that "no one had a vested interest in the outcome" of the referendum.

"Ours were ordinary citizens, not people who stood to make a quarter of a billion dollars," he said, which he contends was true of some of those who supported passage of the surtax.

The pro-surtax side, such as Healthy Manatee, "definitely outraised" the anti-surtax groups, he said.

"They were very nasty," he said, saying that was one reason he gave some of his

own money to help defeat the surtax.

Tom Nolan, president of the Nolan Group, a political consulting firm that aided Healthy Manatee in its support of the health care surtax, accused Robinson of hiding contributors to his political committees.

"The question is: Who are Mr. Robinson's contributors?" asked Nolan. "The only one we know is Mr. Robinson, the rest of the people we don't know. We don't know who his contributors are, so we can't be sure about what he's alleging.

"Who is the group who presented all their numbers and listed all their contributors? Healthy Manatee," Nolan said.

Nolan challenged Robinson to be forthcoming.

"Look at the other side -- they didn't present their numbers or their contributors," Nolan said. "And who in the end do you believe: the people who are hiding, or those who came out front?"

Robinson sits on the board of the State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota, and is a former member of the Sarasota-Manatee Airport Authority, which oversees operation of Sarasota Bradenton International Airport.

Manatee Against Taxation reported no expenses, but $115,000 in contributions -- $50,000 from Robinson's accounting firm and $65,000 from another political committee he chaired, the Committee to Protect Florida's Seniors, according to finance reports filed recently with the Florida Division of Elections.

But not all of the money went to defeat the surtax, since the committees he chairs contribute to multiple causes, he said.

The Committee to Protect Florida's Seniors shows that between April 1 and June 30, it received $66,000 in contributions from Veterans for Conservative Principles, a committee based in Tallahassee, according to a separate filing.

The committee also paid Robinson's firm $250 for accounting services, according to records.

During the same period, Veterans for Conservative Principles received $66,000 in contributions from Greenpoint Investors LLC, with a mailing address listed at 200 S. Orange Ave., Sarasota.

Details about Greenpoint Investors LLC were unavailable on the Florida Department of State website, which lists business records. Robinson declined to say who the group represents.

Other monies that fueled the campaign against the half-cent sales tax increase came from a Tallahassee group called Floridians for Ethics and Truth in Politics, which, according to news accounts, frequently donates money to defeat candidates and issues that might favor providing health care to undocumented immigrants.

A call to Mike Hanna, the chair for Floridians for Ethics and Truth in Politics, was not returned Wednesday.

Past contributors to Veterans for Conservative Principles include the phosphate giant, the Mosaic Company, and companies linked to Bradenton developer Carlos Beruff, who serves on the SCF board with Robinson. But there is no indication that their contributions were spent on the anti-tax campaign.

Common Cents for Manatee reported only a single $5,000 contribution from Floridians for Ethics and Truth in Politics; it has been active since at least 2010, but the donation to Common Cents was the only one it made from April 1 to June 30 of this year, records showed.

Past donors to Floridians for Ethics and Truth in Politics include another committee, Citizens for Florida Prosperity, whose treasurer is Robinson.

New filings with the Manatee elections office show that Healthy Manatee, the committee organized to support the sales tax proposal, spent $181,100 on its campaign, much of it on fliers and automated telephone calls.

As previously reported, the group's biggest donors included local hospitals and others in the health care industry. UHS of Delaware, which owns Manatee Memorial and Lakewood Ranch Medical Center, and HCA, which owns Blake Medical Center, donated $75,000 each, according to records.

In the past, companies with ties to local hospitals have contributed to the Palmetto-based Committee for Community Leadership, whose name was mentioned on automatic telephone voters received before the election.

In the first three months of the year, Blake Medical Center donated a total of $7,000. But during the next three months, contributions and spending by the Committee for Community Leadership was minimal, according to records filed with the state.

The only expense was $2,813 paid to a North Carolina telecommunications company.

Sara Kennedy, county government reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031 or on @sarawrites.

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