Florida Agriculture Commissioner and gubernatorial candidate Nikki Fried (D) and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).Scott McIntyre/For The Washington Post, Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
One of FL Gov. DeSantis’ Democratic opponents accused him of making appointments to state university boards of trustees conditional upon campaign reelection donations.
Nikki Fried, the state agriculture commissioner, made the allegation Tuesday night.
The DeSantis campaign and the Florida university system’s press office did not return Insider’s requests for comment.
Nikki Fried, Florida’s agriculture commissioner and a Democratic candidate for governor, has accused Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis of trying to leverage campaign donations over members of the Florida public university system’s boards of trustees.
Fried is the only Democrat to win a statewide election in Florida since 2018, and is one of three Democrats challenging DeSantis in next August’s primary.
DeSantis is already considered a rising GOP star and contender for the party’s 2024 presidential nomination by some Republican insiders. He has come under scrutiny from critics for appointing major donors to boards of trustees across the state’s university system and signing a controversial law on what he’s described as student “indoctrination” at the public institutions of higher learning, threatening to defund campuses without adequate “ideological diversity.”
“I don’t know if this is as public. You all should know,” Fried said at a virtual town hall event held Tuesday night by the United Faculty of Florida Union.
“Our current boards of trustees across the state were required to give a campaign contribution to Ron DeSantis in the amount of $100,000,” she continued. “And if they didn’t give him the campaign contribution, they were not reappointed to the boards. That is what we are dealing with here in the state of Florida with this Governor.”
‘Stacked’ with donors
Her allegation, first reported by Scott Powers of Florida Politics, goes beyond the otherwise common practice of public university board of trustees members being appointed after donating to a winning candidate’s gubernatorial campaign.
It is entirely legal for someone to donate tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to a prospective governor’s campaign and then receive a state government appointment, but threatening current board of trustee members over reelection donations is a far more serious charge.
While Fried’s campaign declined to comment on how she heard of the alleged demand from DeSantis — citing “a private conversation” — a campaign spokesperson doubled down on the claim.
“DeSantis’ appointments are stacked with his biggest donors — and the Boards of Trustees are no different,” Drew Godinich, the campaign spokesperson, told Insider in an email. “DeSantis’ corruption knows no limits — even when it means compromising on Floridians’ schools.”
Neither the DeSantis campaign nor the University of Florida’s communications office returned Insider’s requests for comment.
Republican Party of Florida Executive Director Helen Aguirre Ferré denied Fried’s allegation.
“It is a bald faced lie, which is par for the course for Fried,” she told Florida Politics.
At least nine current members on boards of trustees across Florida’s university system have made donations to the DeSantis 2022 campaign or the state GOP, either in their own name, through their company, or via a spouse, according to state campaign finance records, which are available in a public database.
Representatives at the University of Florida communications office would not put Insider in touch with board members who have donated to DeSantis or the state GOP so far this election cycle.
Among those trustees are Carlos Duart of Florida International University, the University of Central Florida’s Bill Chrisite, Jeff Condello, and Joe Conte, the University of Florida’s Mori Hosseini, Richard Cole, and Rahul Patel, as well as the University of South Florida’s Will Weatherford and Leslie Muma.
Muma’s wife gave $100,000 to the DeSantis campaign this year, while the smallest donation amount was $25,000 from Hosseini to the Florida GOP and Weatherford to DeSantis.
In Tuesday night’s virtual town hall, Fried promised to clear the boards of GOP campaign donors.
“While I won’t be able to immediately fire them all,” she said, “certainly when their reappointments come in play, I will not be reappointing those members of boards of trustees that are all campaign donors to the Republican Party.”
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