The round of golf was scheduled at exclusive Indian Creek Country Club overlooking Biscayne Bay.
Three Duke Energy lobbyists were to join Gov. Ron DeSantis in mid-February, a precious opportunity for the utility to get face time with Florida’s new governor weeks after he took office.
Internal documents obtained by the Tampa Bay Times reveal that Duke’s lobbyists didn’t just request the governor’s time. They were supposed to pay for it, too.
“Is this the one that is $25k per?” asked the chair of DeSantis’ political committee, Susan Wiles, in February emails referencing the upcoming round of golf.
“A little more — Duke is going to do $100k,” responded the committee’s finance consultant, Heather Barker.
Days after the golf outing, Duke made a $75,000 donation to the Republican Party of Florida, which Wiles described in a memo as “interchangeable” with DeSantis’ political committee.
Other documents reviewed by the Times established prices donors could pay to interact with DeSantis or his wife, Casey.
Golf in a foursome? $25,000.
Golf one-on-one with DeSantis? $100,000.
A 10- to 15-minute meeting? $25,000.
A dinner event? $150,000.
One hour of an “intimate and high dollar” gathering? $250,000.
Others do it, too
Paying for access to powerful politicians is hardly new. President Bill Clinton famously allowed top donors to stay in the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House during the 1990s. President Donald Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, once bragged, “If you’re a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn’t talk to you. If you’re a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you.”
But internal documents from DeSantis’ campaign committee provide a rare peek into the inner workings of the main political operation behind Florida’s top elected official — someone who is often talked about as a potential 2024 presidential candidate.
The memos lay out, in sometimes brazen terms, how the Republican’s political and gubernatorial staff could work together to meet a personal goal of their boss: Make DeSantis a nationally known political entity.
“This timeframe is relatively aggressive because it is the governor’s desire to fundraise and maintain a high political profile at all times — inside and outside of Florida,” Wiles wrote in a Jan. 20 memo outlining a proposed fundraising plan to DeSantis’ chief of staff, Shane Strum. The governor’s office would not make DeSantis available for an interview. His spokeswoman, Helen Aguirre Ferré, declined to comment.
In an emailed statement, Wiles said the fundraising plan was a proposal and was never set into motion. Wiles, a veteran political operative and lobbyist who took over DeSantis’ campaign in the home stretch of last year’s gubernatorial race, was also executive director of his transition team.
“It would be false and grossly unfair to Gov. DeSantis to assume that any of the ideas proposed in this memo were ever implemented,” Wiles told the Times. “In fact, Gov. DeSantis should be commended for upholding the highest standards of ethics during his campaign and during his service as governor of our state.”
Yet memos and campaign finance records suggest DeSantis did deploy elements of the proposed strategy.
In the Jan. 20 memo to Strum, Wiles said that DeSantis and the first lady approved the “aggressive” fundraising plan. Casey DeSantis, a key member of DeSantis’ inner circle, intended to play “an integral role in many of these activities,” Wiles added, including events for supporters at the governor’s mansion and dedicated time for thank you calls.
Teeing up donors
Meanwhile, DeSantis has kept his golf game sharp while meeting with lobbyists, business leaders and donors on the course, just as the fundraising plan suggested.
Days after his outing with the Duke lobbyists, DeSantis returned to the same Indian Creek Country Club golf course. On Feb. 23, he was joined by two corporate executives — Bryon Ehrhart of Aon and Roger Desjadon of Florida Peninsula Insurance Co. The purpose was to “discuss future support,” according to an itinerary obtained by the Times, and his golf partners were described as “New Money.”
A month after the round, Ehrhart donated $10,000 to Friends of Ron DeSantis. Reached by phone Wednesday, Ehrhart said the contribution to DeSantis’ political committee was not connected to the golf round with the governor.
Ehrhart’s only other comment: “He hit the ball a mile.”
There is no record of Desjadon donating to DeSantis or any other Florida Republicans since the round.
Duke Energy spokeswoman Ana Gibbs declined to describe what was discussed when the company’s three lobbyists golfed with DeSantis.
“All political contributions made by Duke Energy come from shareholders, not customers,” Gibbs said.
The Times asked DeSantis’ office for a list of all his golf partners since his Jan. 8 inauguration. His office did not respond.
In stark terms, the memos spell out ways to “maximize dollars” through close coordination between the governor’s campaign staff and state employees working in his office.
“It is imperative for me to be up to date on the governor’s views and calendar,” Barker told Wiles in a Jan. 16 memo. Later, she outlined the need to create a spreadsheet of “targets and notes” for DeSantis and his wife to review.
“With the governor’s bold vision, we are preparing to implement a positive paid communications plan based on his policy announcements and activities,” Wiles wrote.
If the governor travels, it can be parlayed into an opportunity to meet with “high net-worth donors,” one memo suggests. Checks would follow.
“Based on the governor’s travel schedule, one-on-one or industry-based group meetings will be scheduled on-location,” Barker wrote.
To achieve this, Wiles suggested “close and frequent coordination” with the governor’s office “is absolutely necessary to make this work.” She offered weekly calls to “coordinate calendars, messaging requirements and activities needed.”
In a similar vein, Barker wrote that she will “coordinate/pass off non-finance requests with the designated Governor’s senior team member” and prepare a weekly fundraising report to “ensure the governor, first lady, and the senior team knows the level of support for appropriate actions and decision making.”
Barker did not respond to calls, text messages or emails to elaborate. She is the lone paid financial consultant for Friends of Ron DeSantis, for which she has earned $66,494 since March.
The memos contradict the candidate who vowed last year to clean up Florida’s corrupt political culture.
DeSantis once told Fox News he would “drain the swamp in Tallahassee, which needs to be drained, just like Washington,” and his campaign called Republican primary opponent Adam Putnam a shill for “special interest money” and a “swamp dweller.”
Of the $2.6 million Friends of Ron DeSantis has raised since his election, almost half has come from companies, industry groups and individuals who donated to Putnam. DeSantis’ donor list includes familiar and influential names: Disney, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the political action committee of the Florida Realtors Association, insurance giants Florida Blue and United Health, payday lender Amscot and power company TECO Energy — all Putnam benefactors.
The memos outline, step-by-step, the combined strategy by DeSantis’ political committee, Friends of Ron DeSantis, and the Republican Party of Florida to “make campaigning in the state of Florida more efficient and turnkey” and “build a machine” for electoral victories in 2020 and 2022.
The plan conveniently keeps DeSantis in front of the out-of-state financiers who bankrolled his unexpected ascension to governor and who would be critical to his political aspirations in 2022, when he would face reelection, and beyond.
Offers on the table
New York attorney Bob Giuffra has already offered to host an event in the Hamptons, one memo says, as have casino magnate Sheldon Adelson in Las Vegas, manufacturer Joseph Duke in New Jersey and investor Doug Deason in Texas.
Within the state, the memos outline a goal to tap into known Republican fundraisers such as St. Petersburg’s Mel Sembler, a former U.S. ambassador, and Daytona Beach home builder Mori Hosseini for $250,000 one-hour events. Last year, Hosseini helped DeSantis arrange the opportunity of a lifetime for any avid duffer: a chance to play Augusta National Golf Club, home to the Masters.
Sembler said he has not committed to a fundraiser for DeSantis but probably will hold one eventually. In the near future, he’s dedicating his time to helping Republicans keep control of the U.S. Senate.
“At 89, I’m not pushing myself to take on two things at once,” Sembler said this week.
When the governor travels to Koch Seminars and American Israel Public Affairs Committee events, his political team wants donors to spend $25,000 to meet with DeSantis and $150,000 to dine with him. In addition, these events provide opportunities for “check pick-ups and relationships that would lead to new ‘asks.’ ”
The political team could pull this off if it had buy-in from inside DeSantis’ state office. Help us, help you, the memo suggested.
“It is my goal to make this as easy and painless as possible,” Wiles wrote, “as we work to support you.”