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PAC in State Senate Race Linked to Benacquisto Campaign and Big Sugar

Jason Maughan, Lizbeth Benacquisto

A Political Newcomer

State senate candidate Jason Maughan is campaigning on a message of clean water.

Maughan is challenging Fort Myers incumbentLizbeth Benacquisto for senate district 27, which covers much of Lee County.  

The Sanibel lawyer wants to buy U.S. Sugar land south of Lake Okeechobee to help relieve harmful discharges into the rivers bordering it. U.S. Sugar has been critical of past plans to buy the land.

But, a political action committee or PAC has been attacking Maughan’s campaign. That PAC has ties to big sugar and Benacquisto.

PAC Attack

Maughan said he’s running because state politicians are not fixing the water issue.

The Caloosahatchee River has suffered from toxic algal blooms since heavy Lake O discharges began earlier this year.

Maughan said the dirty water could hurt the local economy.   

“If that river stays green – and for gosh sakes it is now August and we still got a green river that started after Christmas – if that river stays green,” he said, “we’re going to have a micro-recession that will make the last one look like a joke.”

The political action committee Truth Matters is hitting Maughan’s campaign, but not his message.

It’s launched TV ads and sent out mailers referring to a 1995 incident in Washington State when Maughan was a student. The News-Press reports Maughan shot into a car he thought was abandoned.  

Maughan said it was an accidental discharge and that the sheriff’s department later determined the gun was broken.

Two people were reclining in the car. One was cut by shattered glass.

The News-Press reports Maughan fled, was caught and charged with felonies.  It also reports those charges were reduced to misdemeanors. Maughan sued for wrongful prosecution and was awarded roughly $100,000.

Maughan said what’s been aired and written about that case is not true.

“I’ve never been ‘done for a felony.’ I’ve never been chased by the cops. I’ve never had a DUI,” he said. “I’ve never had any of the things that were stated in there.”

Truth Matters and Big Sugar

The Truth Matters PAC shares a Tallahassee address with a limited liability company called Stonehenge, LLC.

Stonehenge is made up of lobbyists whose recent clients include U.S. Sugar, Florida Crystals and South Florida municipalities like Belle Glade and Moore Haven. 

The PAC was established and received donations in 2014. After a year of inactivity in 2015, it received its first of only four donations this June.

All of Truth Matters’ 2016 donations came from three PACs, totaling $345,000.

·        The PAC Taxpayers in Action gave two donations in June and July totaling $145,000.

·        The latest donation was by a PAC called Protect Florida Families, which gave $175,000 in early August.

Those two PACs alone are made up of about $2.1 million in special interest money going back to 2014. (The third PAC is the Florida Medical Association, which is made up mostly of donations from physicians.)

Florida Crystals and U.S. Sugar have given $185,000 to those two PACs from 2014 to 2016. Jason Maughan wants to purchase U.S. Sugar land to move water south.

University of South Florida political science professor Susan MacManus said the world of campaign finance is like an octopus.

“The arms are reaching everywhere and often they become entangled with each other and disentangle,” she said. “Some poor person really trying to track the money flow in politics is one of the most difficult jobs facing anyone.”

A U.S. Sugar spokesperson wrote in a statement, the company “fully and legally participates in the American political process, just like other businesses, organizations and individuals.  Our contributions are in line with or below what other Florida companies and organizations contribute year after year.”

The company could not answer specific questions about donations in the district 27 race.

Truth Matters and Benacquisto

Truth Matters’ spokesperson is named Brian Hughes. He’s quoted in a July 11 article by Florida Politics standing by the facts in its attack ad against Maughan.

The head of a Tallahassee-based company named Meteoric Media Strategies is also named Brian Hughes.

In mid-July, Truth Matters campaign finance reports show the company paid $7,750 to Meteoric Media Strategies.

In late June, Lizbeth Benacquisto’s campaign paid Hughes’ company $9,325 for “printing.”

Days before he received money from the campaign, Hughes tweeted “Happy to help @lizbethkb [Lizbeth Benacquisto] communicate her strong record of conservative leadership.”  


Hughes’ time as a spokesperson also includes representing Florida Sugar Farmers. Hughes is quoted in a 2014 WLRN article as spokesperson for the group, which includes U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals.

According to a 2013 Miami Herald article, Hughes’ media company also produced an ad campaign for the state’s three biggest producers – U.S. Sugar, Florida Crystals, and Florida Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative.

“It’s not uncommon for coalitions and businesses to reach out in whatever media form to make sure people understand the facts,” Hughes said in the piece.

The Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida gave $1,500 in late July to Taxpayers in Action— 11 days after the PAC helped fund Truth Matters.

Dark Money in Florida

Public Concepts is a political consulting firm. It shares an address with PACs like the Treasure Coast Alliance and Protect Florida Families.

Protect Florida Families is the PAC that recently gave $175,000 to Truth Matters. Truth Matters paid Public Concepts, which has the same address as Protect Florida Families, almost $97,000 in Aug. 2014.

Since Jan. 2015, Benacquisto’s campaign has paid at least $57,000 to Public Concepts. That PAC is chaired by Jenna Persons, who works as an attorney with Bruce Strayhorn.

The News-Press reports Benacquisto and Strayhorn were married for about four years until 2015.

Ben Wilcox with the government watchdog group Integrity Florida said it seems as if Benacquisto’s campaign was coordinating with the PACs.

He said Florida needs to rethink its campaign finance system.

“We need to go back and take a new look at our campaign finance system and make it much more transparent so people aren’t able to hide money through moving it between political committees,” he said.

Wilcox said there are no restrictions he’s aware of for how much a candidate can coordinate with a committee.

He said when it comes to campaign contributions, however, Florida restricts candidates, but not political committees.

“It’s almost you treat candidates unfairly in Florida in the whole scheme of things because a candidate is limited in the amount of money he or she can raise, but a PAC can raise unlimited amounts and spend against that candidate. It kind of creates an unfair balance,” he said.

Challenger Jason Maughan said he’s received calls of support in the wake of Truth Matters’ attacks.

“They don’t make violent felons spotless lawyers,” he said. “Simple as that. If it said that I actually lived on Mars, what am I supposed to say at that point?”

Calls to Truth Matters, Meteoric Media Strategies and an associated law firm were not returned.

State Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto also did not return repeated attempts to discuss her campaign. 

The Republican candidates face off Tuesday, August 30. 

Topher is a reporter at WGCU News.