TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Officials working for Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration – not his campaign – have sent text messages to Florida lobbyists soliciting political contributions for DeSantis’ presidential run, a break with traditional norms that has raised ethical and legal questions 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 with leadership positions in state agencies. They asked the recipient of the message to contribute to the governor’s campaign through a specific link that appeared to track who is giving as part of a “bundle” program.
“The bottom line is that the administration appears to be keeping track of who’s giving, and doing so with the help of state employees,” said one longtime Florida lobbyist. “You are in a prisoner’s dilemma. They are going to stay in power. We all understand that.”
NBC News is not naming the specific employees who sent the text messages because it could identify the lobbyists who received the messages and shared them.
DeSantis’ office did not return a request for comment, but an administration official acknowledged that they were raising money for the campaign.
“I’m not sure what all the EOG staff do in their free time and after hours with their First Amendment rights, but I wouldn’t be shocked if Team EOG somehow raised more money than lobbyists,” the administration official said in a text message, citing an acronym for the governor’s office. “I can confirm that I (and many other employees) personally donated.”
“What the hell am I supposed to do? I have a lot of business ahead of the DeSantis administration.
Typically, political staff are charged with raising money for political campaigns, and aides on the official side are barred from these operations.
The legality of the calls depends on a number of factors, including whether they were sent on government-owned phones, or whether they were sent on government property. A longtime Florida election law attorney said even though DeSantis aides are raising money for the campaign in their personal capacity, off the government’s watch, it still raised ethical questions.
“At a minimum, even if they’re sitting in their home at 9 p.m. using their personal phone and contacting lobbyists that they somehow magically met in their personal capacity and not through their role in the governor’s office, it still smells fishy, ” the lawyer said. “There is a problem of abuse of public office here that is obvious to anyone watching.”
But the practice was still striking to those long involved in Florida politics.
NBC News spoke with 10 Republican lobbyists in Florida, all of whom said they could not recall being asked for donations so openly by administration officials — especially at a time when the governor still has to act on the state budget.
The process, which involves DeSantis using his line-item veto pen to cut funding for projects that the same lobbyists they ask for political money has a professional stake in. Most lobbyists said they felt pressured to give to the governor’s campaign.
“What the hell am I supposed to do?” said one lobbyist. “I have a lot of business ahead of the DeSantis administration.”
“The ethics behind this is questionable at best, especially when the budget has yet to be acted upon,” said another Republican lobbyist.
“It walks a very close line of what is ethical and possibly legal. It’s state employees taking advantage of their official position to ask people whose livelihoods depend on access to state government for money,” said a Florida lobbyist.
“Using a package code makes it look like individual employees are getting credit with the promotion,” the person added. – It is very doubtful.
DeSantis launched his presidential campaign Wednesday, in a Twitter Spaces conversation with Elon Musk that was marred by technical glitches that at times overshadowed the event itself.
On Thursday, DeSantis’ campaign announced that it had raised $8.2 million in the first 24 hours, a staggering amount.
DeSantis has crafted much of his political persona as a political outsider whose goal is to “drain the swamp.” His campaign store quickly began offering T-shirts that said “DeSantis breaks systems” after the flubbed Twitter rollout, which his campaign says was due to such a high level of interest that the social media platform simply couldn’t handle.
“The practice feeds the DeSantis corrupt swamp meme perfectly for opponents. For no f—— reason,” said another veteran Florida Republican. “Hard to be Mr. Break the Internet and Swamp when you do this. Really stupid .”
Republican consultants and fundraisers in other states told NBC News they have not heard of a similar situation involving state employees trying to get political contributions, and it would raise serious questions if their clients tried a similar approach.
“If any of my clients had legislative staff sending out donation links, we’d have a tough conversation,” said a Republican fundraiser who works on federal elections.
The person added that regardless of the legal implications, the optics of taxpayer-funded employees asking lobbyists for political money is bad.
“Whoever is asking these kids to do this has lost their mind,” said another Republican lobbyist in Florida.