Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst Has Made Campaign Contributions to 12 Florida Legislators and One Curious 527


The kerfuffle caused by Michelle Rhee’s Florida reps call for Astroturf commenting in blogs isn’t the only activity by her empire. Rhee’s StudentsFirst made 12 different $500 contributions to Florida legislators during a period which began 11/18/2011 an ended on 1/12/2012 before the last legislative session. Save democrat senator Jeremy Ring, the rest of the legislators were republicans. The checks for the legislators came from Rhee’s DC office, while a $2500 contribution check was cut in her Sacramento office 7/18/2012 for Tullahassee 527 Florida First Forever Inc.

Here is the list of the republican legislators who received the maximum $500 contributions:

Rep. Janet Adkins (Fernandina Beach)

Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto (Fort Meyers)

Rep. Michael Bilica (Miami)

Rep. Marti Coley (Marianna)

Rep. Richard Corcoran (New Port Richey)

Sen. Andy Gardiner (Orlando)

Sen. Joe Negron (Palm City)

Sen. David Simmons (Altamonte Springs)

Rep. Kelly Stargel (Lakeland)

Sen. John Thrasher (Jacksonville)

Rep. Will Weatherford (Wesley Chapel)

Rhee chose her legislators well as the list includes sponsors of the bills she supports. Ring has long been courted by the state’s ed reform power brokers, but the Fort Lauderdale senate democrat voted no in the game-changing parent trigger fight.

A much more fascinating money trail exists when one traces Rhee’s $2500 donation to Tallahassee 527 Florida First Forever (FFF) just a few weeks ago on July 18. It was interestingly preceded by a $4000 contribution from Charter Schools USA the month before on June 16.  The link between Rhee and the largest for-profit charter school operator in the state indicates that FFF will be engaging in political activity of their behalf.

By all indications, Florida First Forever is an on the level 527 run by an experienced operative, Daniel Burns. They appear to specialize in media advocacies of all kinds.  Burns closed FFF at the end of March in 2009 but reopened for business later that year in July. His 527 has one extremely curious expenditure. It’s the only contribution his 527 has ever made in the amount of $9500 on 10/26/2010 to Florida Federation of Children at a PO Box in Sopchoppy, Florida. There is no such entity. But John Kirtley’s Florida Federal for Children records receiving $9500 from FFF on 10/27/2010. Kirtley’s PAC is located in Lutz, Florida near his Tampa home. Sopchoppy is a very small rural community south of Tallahassee, a five-hour drive away.

Why would FFF make the only contribution it ever has  to Kirtley’s pro-voucer PAC?  The logistics, though suspicious, are probably easily explained. But where did FFF get the money to give to Kirtley’s group? In the run-up to the date of the contribution, a number of political committees gave money to FFF, but the one which is most notable is a $50,000 contribution from the Florida Chamber of Commerce Alliance, the political arm of the FCC run by director Mark Wilson.  Is there some reason that Wilson’s FCC political arm cannot directly contribute to a pro-voucer outfit and this was a back channel way of doing so?

This tricky meandering of campaign cash is demonstration that some extremely wealthy and powerful folks are putting millions of dollars into the effort to privatize schools in Florida. Small wonder former gubernatorial candidate Bud Chiles called 527s legal money laundering.

About Bob Sikes

A long time ago and a planet far, far away I was an athletic trainer for the New York Mets. I was blessed to be part of the now legendary 1986 World Series Championship. My late father told me that I'd one day be thankful I had that degree in teaching from Florida State University. He was right and I became twice blesses to become a teacher in the late 1990's. After dabbling with writing about the Mets and then politics, I settled on education.
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