Keith Gross, who is mounting a Republican Primary challenge to U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, may have been illegally coordinating with an outside spending organization.
Before launching his bid for Senate this week, Gross in January launched a 501(c)(4) nonprofit called Advancing Florida.
When the committee launched, the Melbourne lawyer presented it as an exploration of a Senate run. But federal law forbids coordination between Senate campaigns and outside spending groups.
The stated mission on the organization’s website was to promote “the Constitutional way of running and operating government.” Incorporation papers filed with the state of Florida, which list Gross’ Melbourne law firm as the organization’s registered agent and Goss as the incorporating individual, list Advancing Florida’s purpose as “issue advocacy, education and messaging related to matters of public concern.”
Yet the website seems to primarily promote Gross. It prominently features photos of the now-candidate, and includes op-eds written by him, including one heavily criticizing Scott. There’s no outward mention of a Senate campaign.
A Facebook page now promoting Gross’ Senate candidacy states Advancing Florida is “responsible for this page.” For the moment, transparency information on Gross’ Facebook page states it is not currently running ads.
However, Advancing Florida has also produced 84 ads, at least 30 of which mention Gross and promote his individual position on issues including gun rights, education and Social Security.
Federal regulations on outside spending state 501(c)(4) organizations can “only engage in political activity if it is not the ‘primary function’ of the committee,” nor can they be formed solely to privately benefit an individual candidate.
Additionally, campaign finance laws forbid coordination of messaging between Senate campaigns and outside groups. Yet when Gross’ official campaign site launched, it promoted an op-ed on the Federal Aviation Administration that appeared on the Advancing Florida site as well.
While the official campaign site links to a version published in Florida Today, Gross’ hometown newspaper, it uses the same photograph to promote the piece as appears on the Advancing Florida website.
Indeed, the same color schemes and overall design aesthetic of the site, including buttons and font choices, match on the Advancing Florida and official campaign websites.
Different photographs of Gross appear on both sites, but they seem to have been taken the same day, with the candidate wearing the same blue button-up shirt and gray plaid blazer. The photo of Gross at the top of the Advancing Florida website appears as the header for Gross’ official Twitter page.
Beyond coordination, the shaky purpose of the Advancing Florida organization could run into issues with tax law. The IRS says organizations cannot obtain 501(c)(4) tax status if they exist to benefit private individuals. Rather, such organizations must exist to promote social welfare.
That doesn’t outright forbid any political intervention and advocacy. The tax status doesn’t apply for organizations who promote individuals as the organization’s “primary activity.”
“Promotion of social welfare does not include participation or intervention in political campaigns,” federal regulations state.
Additionally, such organizations cannot devote more than 50% of total spending to political activity and still claim 501(c)(4) status. Yet all of the visible expenditures of this group, even ads that don’t explicitly mention Gross address political issues.
This isn’t all bureaucratic minutiae. A federal judge in 2015 sentenced Tyler Harber, a Virginia political consultant, to two years in prison for coordinating $325,000 in coordination between an outside spending group and a congressional campaign.
In that case, Harber, a Republican operative, pleaded guilty to setting up a Super PAC to funnel money to a political campaign he was managing, according to Knox TN Today.