Politico

Florida AG calls for criminal inquiry into Bloomberg’s $16M felon voter donation


TALLAHASSEE — Florida‘s Republican attorney general on Wednesday urged the FBI and state authorities to investigate former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg‘s pledge to spend $16 million helping convicted felons regain their voting rights in the nation’s largest swing state.

The attorney general, Ashley Moody, said in a letter to top law enforcement officials that she was asked by Gov. Ron DeSantis, another Republican, to review the donation Bloomberg announced on Tuesday. Moody said she quickly decided additional scrutiny was warranted.

“After preliminarily reviewing this limited public information and law, it appears further investigation is warranted,” Moody wrote in a letter to Michael McPherson, the FBI special agent in charge of the bureau’s Tampa office, and Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Richard Swearingen. “Accordingly, I request that your agencies further investigate the matter and take appropriate steps as merited.”

The move comes just two weeks before Florida’s voter registration deadline and 12 days after a federal appeals court upheld a restrictive new state law that requires former felons to clear court debts before registering to vote.

State CFO Jimmy Patronis also called on Wednesday for an inquiry into Bloomberg’s effort, asking the Federal Election Commission to investigate whether Bloomberg is “breaking the law by giving direct cash for voters.”

A spokesperson for Bloomberg, who has pledged to spend $100 million in Florida to help Joe Biden beat President Donald Trump in the November election, accused Republicans of playing politics with voter rights. The billionaire former Republican made his own brief big this year to win the Democratic nomination for president.

“This transparent political ploy is just the latest example of Republicans attempting to keep Floridians disenfranchised,“ the spokesperson, Jason Schechter, said in a statement.

Florida voters in 2018 overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment ending the state’s lifetime ban on voting for most former prisoners. But the GOP-controlled Florida Legislature passed a law that requires felons to pay off any outstanding court debts before becoming eligible. One study estimates that nearly 775,000 felons still owe some form of fees, fines or restitution.

After a fierce legal battle, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals earlier this month upheld the law on a 6-4 vote, handing a significant victory to Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature. Barbara Lagoa, an appeals court said to be on Trump’s short list to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was among the jurists who voted in favor of upholding the law.

The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which was established as a nonprofit back in late 2018, set up a fees and fine fund to help people pay their court debts. Before the appeals court ruling the organization had raised more than $4 million, including a $100,000 donation from a voting rights group set up by NBA superstar LeBron James and other entertainers and athletes. In the nearly two weeks following the decision, the total amount of donations surged to more than $20 million — in large part due to Bloomberg‘s pledge.

Florida Republicans started signaling they wanted a probe into Bloomberg’s help on Tuesday night when Republican Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, an ally of Trump, told Fox News he understood Moody was looking into the money and a “criminal investigation may be underway.”

Desmond Meade, executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, sidestepped questions on Wednesday whether or not the hefty donation from Bloomberg and others could run afoul of state election law. Meade said any inquiry into Bloomberg‘s contribution would also need to look at the donation made by 44,000 other people who gave to the effort.

“At the end of the day, what we are witnessing is an all-American thing,” Meade said. “It’s not a Mike Bloomberg thing. Mike Bloomberg is one of over 44,000 people that had donated to help these people resolve their legal financial obligations.”

Meade said his group — whose deputy director is a registered Republican — is not operating in the “political realm.” He also brushed aside an assertion that the money would be targeted primarily to help Black and Hispanic felons seeking to have their rights restored.

“We are fighting just as hard for that person who wished he could have voted for Donald Trump as that person who wished they could have voted for Barack Obama,” Meade said.

He added that his organization is “looking for people who have been impacted by felony convictions and want to move on in their lives.”

The decision by DeSantis and Moody to probe the coalition came on the same day that the governor refused to grant a pardon to Meade, a convicted felon who went from being a drug addict to a law school graduate and leader of the group that successfully passed Amendment 4. During a meeting of the state clemency board Wednesday, DeSantis said he wanted more information about Meade’s military discharge following a larceny conviction.

Moody at the start of the meeting recused herself from consideration of Meade’s pardon. She said afterwards she chose to do so to avoid any conflict-of-interest allegations, but declined to say what conflict she may have. Her office released her letter to the FBI after the clemency board meeting was over.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only statewide elected Democrat, said the Republicans “will stop at nothing to prevent people from voting.”

“Whether Mike Bloomberg, John Legend, or LeBron James, these are contributions made legally and in good faith to FRRC’s mission of helping people rightfully regain the right to vote,” Fried said in a statement. “This shouldn’t be a partisan issue — more than 5 million Floridians on both sides of the aisle voted for this in 2018. “It’s unfortunate that the Republican Party views denying people the right to vote as a necessity in their path to victory in 2020.”

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