Altruism, or for profit?

With such large self-funded contributions to campaigns, we can’t help but ask why?

Home » Opinion
Posted February 20, 2023 | Ocala Gazette Editorial Board

When candidates who are not independently wealthy sink significant amounts of their own money and time into political campaigns for an elected position that only pays about $29,000 annually for two years, the obvious question is: Why?

Perhaps the answer involves a genuine desire to serve their community, in this case as a member of the Florida House of Representatives. The race for the open District 24 seat will be decided on March 7.

The incentives, however, can extend beyond such civic benevolence.

Certainly, the position of a state legislator comes with influence, whether real or perceived. Elected officials get their calls promptly returned, closed doors are opened. People they encounter wish to be in their good graces. And when it’s time to step down, relationships begun and nurtured during their time in office benefit them both personally and professionally for years to come.

Fair enough, perhaps, considering the sacrifice of time and energy it takes to serve.

Sometimes, though, the benefits are less subtle. And these connections bear watching.

Take, for example, State Rep. Brett Hage, a Republican who recently concluded his representation of District 33, which includes Sumter County and parts of Marion and Lake counties. That geographic region also happens to encompass the sprawling community of The Villages.

According to financial disclosures, Hage was hired by The Villages after he was elected in 2018.  Hage, who lists his occupation as a residential developer, reported an income of $141,003 from The Villages in 2019. The following year, his income more than doubled to $350,000. In 2021, he received a whopping $925,096 from The Villages.

When it comes to constituent services, Hage has been a stalwart for his employer. In 2021, Hage co-sponsored a bill that limited how much impact fees local government can charge developers to offset the demands on public services brought on by new construction. The legislation arrived just in time to put an end to a dispute between the Sumter County Commission, The Villages and local taxpayers angry at having to subsidize the developer’s impacts on infrastructure.

Another local legislator, Stan McClain, an Ocala Republican representing District 27, also co-sponsored that bill. According to McClain’s financial disclosures, his main income comes from the construction industry.

This brings us back to looking for instances in which political candidates might be motivated to run in order to be in position to shepherd along self-serving legislation or experience a financial windfall by virtue of being elected.

A good place to start is to examine what businesses pay their bills and how being in an elected position lot could improve their lot. After all, this may justify their heavy investments in their campaigns.

Thus far, the Republican candidates in the District 24 special election reporting the largest personal contributions to their own campaign accounts are Ryan Chamberlin at $75,000, Charlie Stone at $50,000, and Dr. Stephen Pyles at $60,000. It should be noted that Chamberlin has declined to provide proof he funded the $75,000 after the Gazette noted his financial disclosures did not support his access to that amount of money.

In the case of Chamberlin, who also has a real estate license but says he doesn’t use it, drawing the line to potential increased profits is easy because the bulk of his reported income comes from his company, True Patriot Network, which connects conservative politicians and organizations with donors through advertising on the online platform. If voters send Chamberlin to Tallahassee, which is filled to the brim with Republican lawmakers and political operatives, he’ll be nicely situated among a deep pool of potential clients.

When the Gazette asked Chamberlin if he felt this could be a conflict of interest, he replied, “No, I think it’s a good thing.”

As for the other candidates in the special election, Pyles’ medical practice could possibly suffer with him in Tallahassee for extended periods or performing other duties. However, there is a lot of state and federal funding available to fight opioid addiction and Pyles, who specializes in pain management, could conceivably be in position to steer those funds as a legislator.

Justin Albright, who has contributed only a few thousand dollars to his campaign, would certainly make new connections as a legislator, people who could enhance his real estate career. Candidate Jose Juarez, who makes BBQ sauce and runs a niche customer service center catering to the needs of motorcycle dealers, would seemingly have a less-direct way of directly profiting from a seat in the Legislature.

Which brings us to Stone, a career politician who served as a county commissioner from 2004-2012 and a state representative from 2012-2020.

He owns Stone Petroleum, which services businesses and local governments in and around the district. The Marion County government spent $218,919 with Stone Petroleum from the time he took office in 2004 through 2016. The City of Ocala did business with Stone Petroleum to the tune of $246,235.90 from 2018 through Oct 2022.

About five months ago, Stone withdrew his bid to continue servicing the City of Ocala, even though he gave the lowest bid. According to a city council agenda item, he withdrew it because of a “conflict with the escalation clause” in the city’s proposed contract. The contract, valued at over $500,000 went to Palmdale Oil Co. Inc.

When it comes to filing financial disclosures, Stone has chosen over the years to attach his federal tax return rather than provide the names of his business’ major sources of income. He has declined the Gazette’s requests to identify customers of Stone Petroleum located in Marion County in 2020, 2021 and 2022.

We wanted to see if any Stone Petroleum customers had come before the Marion County commission. This is relevant because his wife, Michelle Stone, is not only a member of the commission, she is also part owner of Stone Petroleum. She has been involved with negotiating with Ocala on interlocal agreements while Stone Petroleum was negotiating a significant contract with Ocala last year.

Clearly, the company could potentially benefit if the owners hold seats on both the Marion County commission and the Florida House of Representatives.

It is important to note that the type of business prospecting detailed here is technically legal. That means the only entities left to watch for self-serving deals are the voters and what remains of local news organizations. And Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is already increasing his attacks on the press in advance of what is expected to be a presidential campaign.  Maybe that is why DeSantis wants to remove the protections journalists report under.

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