Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis appears at an event in Sarasota, Florida

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis appears at an event in Sarasota, Florida on May 15, 2023.

(Photo: Thomas Simonetti for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

'No Question That It's Illegal': Watchdogs Pan DeSantis Super PAC Scheme

"The FEC should investigate and act as appropriate," said one ethics expert.

When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis formally enters the 2024 presidential race on Wednesday, he will have the support of a super PAC that expects to be flush with at least $200 million in cash and ready to spend big.

But a sizable portion of that war chest—around $86 million of it—is facing scrutiny from campaign finance watchdogs given its origins: a Florida political committee named Friends of Ron DeSantis.

In an apparent attempt to evade campaign finance rules barring candidates from using funds raised for a state election to finance a federal campaign, DeSantis' allies reportedly plan to transfer the nearly $90 million from the Florida committee to Never Back Down, a pro-DeSantis super PAC that is free to raise and spend unlimited sums as long as it does not coordinate directly with any candidate.

The ability of Never Back Down to remain entirely independent has been called into doubt given that the organization is led by some of DeSantis' closest friends, including former Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt.

Erin Chlopak, senior director for campaign finance at Campaign Legal Center (CLC), told OpenSecrets on Wednesday that "there's no question that it's illegal for a federal candidate to transfer money they raised for a state committee to a federal super PAC."

"Although super PACs are permitted to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money, an essential, fundamental legal requirement is that they operate independently," said Chlopak. "That independence is nonexistent when a super PAC receives tens of millions of dollars from a state committee tied to the very candidate it is supporting."

Chlopak argued that the transfer of funds from Friends of Ron DeSantis to Never Back Down "would enable the candidate to completely circumvent the rules Congress enacted to prevent corruption and ensure our federal election campaigns are transparent."

CLC has said it will file a complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC)—which is evenly split between Republicans and Democrats—if the money transfer takes place as expected.

Noah Bookbinder, president of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), wrote on Twitter earlier this month that "the moves that Ron DeSantis appears poised to make—transferring funds from his state political committee to a federal super PAC—would likely violate campaign finance laws.

"If he does take this step," Bookbinder wrote, "the FEC should investigate and act as appropriate."

DeSantis, who has spent the past few months flying around the U.S. in private jets on the dime of secret donors, insists he is no longer associated with Friends of Ron DeSantis.

Earlier this month, as he prepared to officially launch his presidential campaign, the Republican governor submitted a notice to the state of Florida indicating that he is "no longer associated with the political committee."

But observers were quick to voice skepticism.

"The idea that Ron DeSantis is no longer controlling or associated with 'Friends of Ron DeSantis' is absurd," journalist Judd Legum recently wrote in his newsletter Popular Information. "And the notion that the money held by Friends of Ron DeSantis will decide to transfer its funds to Never Back Down independent of DeSantis is not credible."

Politico reported that after DeSantis filed his notice with the state, the website of Friends of Ron DeSantis was "changed to say that the committee is associated with state Sen. Blaise Ingoglia and not DeSantis."

"The committee... also filed paperwork that said Ingoglia replaced a Tampa accountant as the official chair of the organization," Politico added. "Ingoglia is a Republican ally of DeSantis who sponsored several of the governor's key legislative priorities during the recently concluded legislative session."

"The failure to enforce the law has carved a clear path for others to follow, and it seems like DeSantis knows it."

Saurav Ghosh, CLC's director of federal campaign finance reform, noted in response to the Politicostory that "it has been illegal for over 20 years to use 'soft money'—including money raised by a state PAC under state law—to run for federal office." (Soft money is defined as funds raised outside the constraints of federal campaign finance law.)

"Unfortunately, the FEC has failed to hold candidates accountable for doing exactly what the law prohibits: moving soft money in state committees to federal super PACs backing their candidacy," Ghosh wrote on Twitter. "We filed complaints against [Republican Reps.] Byron Donalds and Debbie Lesko, but the FEC did nothing."

"The failure to enforce the law has carved a clear path for others to follow, and it seems like DeSantis knows it," Ghosh added. "He's distancing himself from 'Friends of Ron DeSantis' the same way Byron Donalds did before transferring soft money to an allied super PAC. If DeSantis does break the law, he won't be alone."

DeSantis' main opponent for the Republican nomination will be former President Donald Trump, who is widely viewed as the GOP frontrunner.

A day before Trump formally launched his 2024 bid late last year, CLC filed a complaint with the FEC alleging that the former president illegally transferred $20 million from his leadership PAC Save America to the pro-Trump super PAC Make America Great Again, Inc.

Last week, CLC and the advocacy group NRDC Action Votes filed a supplemental complaint alleging that Trump and Save America "unlawfully transferred an additional $40 million to MAGA, Inc. on November 3, 2022, raising the total amount in violation to $60 million."

"When federal candidates themselves sidestep laws designed to reduce political corruption and provide transparency about who is spending on elections, they undermine our election system and damage voter trust," CLC's Chlopak said in a statement. "That 'soft money' injection into a federal election was a violation of federal law, and he must be held accountable."

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.