Like Jeff Brandes before her, the 'Watkins Rule' allows Ronda Storms to craftily shuffle around $45,000 in campaign money

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At 10:51 a.m., on June 1, Jeff Brandes’ campaign for the Florida House officially came to an end. At 10:52 a.m., Brandes’ campaign for the Florida Senate began. And with it came a new wrinkle in campaign finance law.

If Brandes had transferred all of his unspent House campaign money to his new Senate fund, he would have been required to offer all donors pro-rated refunds, a time-consuming burden in the midst of a 10-week sprint to the Aug. 14 primary.

He also would not have been able to ask donors to his House campaign who had reached the contribution limit to donate again, as he was able to upon opening a new fundraising account for his Florida Senate campaign.

Some critics, including Brandes’ opponent, Jim Frishe, cried foul about these machinations. But the practice has been legal since 1993, according to Nancy Watkins, campaign treasurer to the political stars who, from her office in Tampa, manages the finances of dozens, if not hundreds, of campaigns and causes.

Watkins, considered to be one of the leading experts in the state and country on campaign finance law, all but trademarked the process Brandes used to craftily shuffle around his campaign money.

In fact, the ‘Watkins Rule’ has already again been put to use, this time by State Senator Ronda Storms.

Storms had been running for re-election to the Florida Senate, but decided to switch races and run for Hillsborough County Property Appraiser. Rather than transfer the money she raised for her State Senate campaign to her local race (only, of course, after asking donors if it was alright to do so), Storms closed down her State Senate campaign account, then turned around and opened up a new account for her Property Appraiser campaign.

But not before Storms “donated” (at least) $45,000 to the Hillsborough County GOP, which not too much later returned the favor with a $45,000 contribution to Storms’s new campaign.

The fact that Storms contributed to the Hillsborough GOP was first reported by Patrick Mantiega of La Gaceta, although the information is not available with the Florida Division of Elections or Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections. One of the other added benefits of the ‘Watkins Rule’ is that when a candidate closes a campaign account rather than transfer the money they are then in “termination” and not required to disclose their final activity until ninety days after their withdrawal – more than enough time to mask a campaign’s operations.

The Hillsborough GOP’s contribution to Storms’s account is disclosed on the Hillsborough SOE’s website.

How, you may ask, was Storms able to just donate $45,000 of her contributors’ money to the Hillsborough GOP? Because the limits on how much a State Senator can ‘donate back’ to their political party were recently lifted. Unlike in years past, Storms could donate as much as she wanted to to the Hillsborough GOP or the Republican Party of Florida. The change in this rule is why the Florida Democratic Party recruited token opposition to several Republican State Senators — to keep these Senators from donated their unspent money to the RPOF for redeployment in more competitive races.

Storms, in effect, improved upon the ‘Watkins Rule’ by taking advantage of these recent changes to campaign finance law. How did she know how to do this?

Well, look at her campaign paperwork. Who is Ronda Storms’ campaign treasurer? That’s right, Nancy Watkins, pretty much one of the smartest people operating in Florida politics. So smart that I can’t wait to see what rule she thinks of next.

Material from Steve Bousquet of the Tampa Bay Times was used in this post.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.