TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Everyone knows that there’s a lot of money in politics, from grassroots donation drives to big corporate spending sprees. The United States has always had financial interests in politics, from every state and nationally.
State Sen. Joe Gruters (R-Sarasota) has proposed new legislation that would further shield political donors’ privacy and open up those who identify them to lawsuits.
The bill proposed in the 2022 legislative session would, if passed, reform the state’s election finance laws and further privatize who donates to political campaigns. Laws about political donations generally involve non-profit organizations set up to make the donations, through political action committees.
The non-profit organizations that conduct this type of donation effort do not have to disclose the identities of their donors, whether they’re people, political actors, or corporations.
Gruters’ bill, Senate Bill 1848, has an identical match, House Bill 1547, in the Florida House of Representatives, sponsored by Rep. Toby Overdorf (R-Port St. Lucie).
The proposed legislation, called the Personal Privacy Protection Act, would prohibit any “compilation of data that directly or indirectly identifies a person as a member of, supporter of, volunteer for, or donor of financial or nonfinancial support to any entity exempt from federal income tax.” The bill also stipulates that public agencies — meaning state, county or local municipalities, departments or offices — cannot release information that could directly or indirectly identify a donor, nor can they compel someone else to do so.
Under the bills, any entity exempt from federal income tax, being a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, cannot be made to release personal information, as defined by the bill, to a public agency.
In short, any identifying information, whether or not intentionally so, is prevented from being shared with anyone, including state law enforcement officials, departments, or agencies. It also prevents the disclosure of information held by a public agency about donors to non-profit organizations, or the organizations themselves. However, there are exceptions to the blanket prohibition.
The bill states that lawful requests for discovery of personal information may occur during litigation should a “compelling need for the personal information by clear and convincing evidence” be given, as well as if a requestor obtains a protective order barring the disclosure of the information to anyone not involved in the litigation. Courts must also, if they reveal information, make a ruling with a finding of good cause before releasing private information publicly.
Essentially, outside of limited circumstances, the information is locked up and cannot be made public. That said, the privacy bill does not apply to “national securities associations” being people or organizations involved in brokerage or over-the-counter market transactions. For U.S. donors and residents, that means companies or organizations that are subject to review by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. In the United State, it means publicly listed companies on the New York Stock Exchange or Nasdaq.
The bills also contain provisions for how to handle violations of the proposed privacy rights.
According to the bills’ text, someone who alleges a violation of their privacy under this legislation is allowed to bring civil action and seek injunctive relief, damages or both for the violation. For each violation, the injured party would be entitled to no less than $2,500 per violation.
Additionally, for intentional violations, the injured party would be entitled to receive $7,500 or more per violation, as the bill says they are entitled to “a sum not to exceed three times the sum” under the previous definition for damage.
Florida courts would be allowed to award all or a portion of the costs of litigation, to include attorney and witness fees, to those claiming injury if they win their case. Those who intentionally violates the privacy law, if it passes, could also face up to 90 days in prison, a fine up to $1,000, or both. According to the bill text, campaign finance disclosures would not be precluded, nor would information that would have to be disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act.
If the legislation passes both chambers and gets signed into law, it would take effect July 1.