TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Officials working for Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration, not his campaign, have been texting Florida lobbyists soliciting political contributions to DeSantis’s presidential bid, a violation of traditional norms that it has raised ethical and legal questions and left many here in the state capital in shock.
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 seems to be controlling who is giving, and they are doing it using state personnel,” said a 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 reveal the lobbyists who received the messages and shared them.
DeSantis’ office did not respond to a request for comment, but an administration official acknowledged that they were fundraising for the campaign.
«I’m not sure what each EOG staffer does in their spare time and after hours, with their first amendment rights, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the EOG team somehow raised more money than the 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 employees) donated personally.»
Political staff are generally tasked with raising money for political campaigns, and aides on the official side are insulated from those operations.
The legality of the solicitations depends on a number of factors, including whether they were sent on state-owned phones or on state property. A longtime Florida election law attorney said that even if DeSantis aides are raising campaign funds in their personal capacities, off the government clock, they still raise ethical questions.
«At the very least, even if they’re sitting at home at 9 p.m. using their personal phone and contacting lobbyists that they somehow magically met in a personal capacity and not through their role in the governor’s office, it still stinks,» he said. lawyer. saying. «There’s a public position misuse issue here that’s obvious to anyone paying attention.»
But the practice was still staggering to those who have been involved in Florida politics for a long time.
NBC News spoke to 10 Republican lobbyists in Florida, who said they couldn’t recall administration officials so openly soliciting donations from them, especially at a time when the governor has yet to act on the state budget.
That process where DeSantis uses his line item veto pen to cut funding for projects in which the very lobbyists they are asking for political money have a professional interest 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 me from the DeSantis administration.”
“The ethics behind it are questionable at best, especially when the budget hasn’t been acted on yet,” said another Republican lobbyist.
“You are walking very close to what is ethical and possibly legal. They are state employees who use their official position to ask for money from people whose livelihoods depend on access to state government,” said a Florida lobbyist.
“Using a bundle code makes it appear as though certain employees are getting credit with the campaign,” the person added. «It’s very questionable.»
DeSantis launched his presidential campaign on 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’s campaign announced that it had raised $8.2 million in its first 24 hours, a staggering sum.
DeSantis has framed much of his political persona as a political outsider whose goal is to «drain the swamp.» His campaign tent quickly began offering T-shirts reading «DeSantis breaks systems» after Twitter’s failed launch, which his campaign claimed was due to such a high level of interest that the social media platform simply couldn’t handle. .
“Practice perfectly feeds DeSantis’ corrupted swampy meme for opponents. For no f—— reason,” said another Republican veteran from Florida. “It’s hard to be Mr. Break the Internet and Swamp when you’re doing this. really dumb.
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 would be having a difficult conversation,” said a Republican fundraiser who works on federal elections.
The person added that regardless of the legal implications, the view of taxpayer-funded staff asking lobbyists for political money is bad.
“Whoever is telling these kids to do this has gone crazy,” another Florida Republican lobbyist said.