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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Officials who work for Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration — not his campaign — have texted Florida lobbyists soliciting political contributions for DeSantis’ presidential bid, a violation of traditional norms that has raised ethical and legal issues and left many here in the state capital shocked.
NBC News reviewed text messages from four DeSantis administration officials, including those directly in the governor’s office and in senior positions at state agencies. They asked the recipient of the message to contribute to the governor’s campaign through a specific link that appeared to follow who gives as part of a “bundled” program.
“The bottom line is that the administration seems to be keeping tabs on who is donating and is doing so using state personnel,” said a longtime Florida lobbyist. “You are in a prisoner’s dilemma. They will stay in power. We all understand that.
NBC News is not naming the specific staffers who sent the text messages, as that could reveal the lobbyists who received the messages and shared them.
DeSantis’ office did not return a request for comment, but an administration official acknowledged that he was raising funds for the campaign.
“I don’t know what every EOG staff member does on their own time and after hours with their First Amendment rights, but I wouldn’t be shocked if the EOG team collected more money than lobbyists,” the administration official said in a text. message, referring to an acronym for the governor’s office. “I can confirm that I (and many other staff) have personally donated.”
“What am I supposed to do?” I have a lot of work ahead of the DeSantis administration.
Typically, political staffers are tasked with fundraising for political campaigns, and helpers on the official side are excluded from these operations.
The legality of the solicitations depends on a range of factors, including whether they were sent to state-owned phones or whether they were sent on state property. A longtime Florida election lawyer said that even though DeSantis aides were raising campaign funds in their personal capacity, off the government clock, it still raised ethical questions.
“At a minimum, even if they’re sitting at home at 9 p.m. using their home phones and contacting lobbyists they’ve magically met in a personal capacity and not in their role in the governor’s office, that still smells bad,” the attorney said. said. “There is a problem of misuse of public position here that is obvious to anyone paying attention.”
But the practice was still breathtaking for those long involved in Florida politics.
NBC News spoke to 10 Republican lobbyists in Florida, all of whom said they could not recall being approached so openly for donations by administration officials — particularly at a time when the governor still has to act on the state budget.
The process that involves DeSantis using his veto pen to cut funding for projects in which the same lobbyists they’re asking for political money have a professional interest. Most lobbyists said they felt compelled to give to the governor’s campaign.
“What am I supposed to do?” said one lobbyist. “I have a lot of business ahead of the DeSantis administration.”
“The ethics behind this are questionable at best, especially when the budget hasn’t passed yet,” said another Republican lobbyist.
“It’s walking a very close line of what is ethical and possibly legal. They are state employees who take advantage of their official position to demand money from people whose livelihoods depend on access to state government,” said a Florida lobbyist.
“Using a bundle code makes it look like some employees are getting campaign credit,” the person added. “It’s very debatable.”
DeSantis kicked off his presidential campaign on Wednesday, in a Twitter Spaces conversation with Elon Musk that was marred by technical problems which sometimes overshadowed the event itself.
On Thursday, DeSantis’ campaign announced that it had raised $8.2 million in its first 24 hours, a staggering sum.
DeSantis has defined much of his political persona as a political outsider whose goal is to “drain the swamp.” His campaign store soon began carrying t-shirts saying “DeSantis is breaking systems” after Twitter’s failed rollout, which his campaign said was due to such a high level of interest that the media platform social just couldn’t handle it.
“Practice perfectly fuels DeSantis’ corrupt swampy meme for opponents. For no f—— reason,” said another Republican veteran from Florida. “Hard to be Mr. Break the Internet and Swamp when you do that. Really stupid.
Republican consultants and fundraisers from other states told NBC News they had not heard of a similar situation of state employees trying to secure political contributions, and it would raise concerns. serious questions if their clients tried a similar approach.
“If any of my clients had legislative staff sending donation links, we would have a tough conversation,” said a Republican fundraiser who works on federal elections.
The person added that whatever the legal implications, the optics of taxpayer-funded staff asking lobbyists for political money is wrong.
“Whoever is telling these kids to do this has lost their minds,” said another Republican lobbyist from Florida.