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2024 Election

Ron DeSantis’ top aide organized government staff to solicit campaign cash from lobbyists

An official government staffer’s serving as a top fundraiser is highly unorthodox and raises ethical questions, say government watchdogs.
Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a campaign stop in Manchester, N.H.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a campaign stop in Manchester, N.H., on June 1.Joseph Prezioso / AFP via Getty Images file

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Gov. Ron DeSantis’ chief of staff was among the biggest political fundraisers helping launch DeSantis' presidential campaign, an unusual instance of a highly influential taxpayer-funded aide’s doubling as a top political bundler.

And part of the way he raised that money was by having other government officials help him solicit cash from lobbyists.

The move, besides being out of the ordinary, raises ethical questions, and it shocked many of those Republican lobbyists here in Florida’s capital who felt pressured to donate because they have business before the administration. It also underscores the extent to which DeSantis has used the state government to further his ambitions.

The governor’s chief of staff, James Uthmeier, helped raise at least $423,042 for his presidential campaign in the hours after the May 24 launch.

The information came from pictures of a leader board set up for a fundraising event — dubbed the “Ron-A-Rama” — at the Miami Four Seasons in the 48 hours after the campaign kickoff. Two sources who were in the room shared the photos with NBC News.

The event was scheduled to coincide with DeSantis’ campaign launch. By bringing top fundraisers and political bundlers from across the country to Miami, it would give DeSantis’ campaign an early boost of significant financial support.

DeSantis' campaign announced it raised an impressive $8.2 million in the first 24 hours, a massive haul due in large part to the Miami event. The pictures from two people in the room reviewed by NBC News show that well over half of that initial amount came from the one event. NBC News is not publishing the pictures to protect the identities of those who shared them.

Uthmeier’s haul made him one of top fundraisers for the campaign at the time. It created a scenario in which he was raising significant six-figure sums of political cash at a faster clip than many more traditional donors and political fundraisers were.

Uthmeier has been DeSantis’ top staffer since September 2021, and like most chiefs of staff, he wields significant influence over every aspect of state government.

Since DeSantis’ launch, Uthmeier has helped orchestrate a political fundraising program within the administration that involved asking administration officials across state government to ask lobbyists by text message to contribute money to DeSantis’ nascent presidential campaign through a specific link.

When a donor gave through the link, the donation was associated with Uthmeier’s name, said people familiar with the messages, which helped make him one of his boss’ top early political bundlers.

NBC News first reported the program last month. At that point, it was unclear that taxpayer-funded administration officials were soliciting contributions from lobbyists in a coordinated fashion. In some cases, leaders of state agencies sent fundraising solicitations to lobbyists known to have business specifically in front of their agency.  

Taryn Fenske, DeSantis' communications director, defended the use of state employees to raise money for DeSantis' presidential run.

"The Governors' team is 100% behind him in his presidential run, because we know the great work he's accomplished as governor," she said in a statement, responding to questions about Uthmeier's bundling efforts. "If the executive team wants to fundraise, knock doors, or volunteer on their free time, more power to them -- they have First Amendment rights like every American."

She said the office could not keep up with "the media's whiplash" in reporting on DeSantis' presidential efforts.

The arrangement in which taxpayer-funded staffers who work for a governor’s office openly solicit campaign contributions is highly out of the ordinary. Generally, a candidate’s campaign team and fundraisers raise the cash, and the operation is siloed off from government officials.

A longtime Florida election law attorney last month told NBC News that even if the DeSantis administration officials are raising money for the campaign in their personal capacities, it represents a “misuse of public position … that is obvious to anyone paying attention.”

The concern is heightened because DeSantis has yet to act on Florida’s $117 billion state budget. The governor has line-item veto authority, meaning he is able to veto specific spending projects tied to lawmakers or lobbyists, adding to the pressure felt by lobbyists who were solicited to give to his campaign.

“What the f--- am I supposed to do?” a lobbyist who received one of the text messages said last month. “I have a lot of business in front of the DeSantis administration.” 

Ben Wilcox, a co-founder of the nonpartisan government watchdog group Integrity Florida, said that influential administration officials’ trying to raise political contributions is highly out of the ordinary and that it raises legal and ethical questions.

“Candidates who are also public officials are supposed to draw a bright line between their campaign and their public office,” he said. “While this may not technically be a violation of the law, depending on whether it was done on state time and state property, it sure looks bad to the taxpaying public.

“It’s made worse that these solicitations were requested of lobbyists who potentially have budget projects or bills from the recent legislative session that the governor has yet to act on,” he added. “That gives the appearance of extortion.” 

A bundler program itself is not rare for presidential-level fundraising. It is complicated, however, by the fact that a taxpayer-funded staffer is among those leading the charge.

“The bundler is assigned a tracking number. This tracking number will appear at the bottom of the bundler’s donor form, which they share with their network,” said a fundraiser who has served as finance director to modern presidential campaigns. “Additionally, a bundler is given a contribution link with their ID embedded to make solicitation and collection of contributions easier."

The person added that generally donors recruited by a bundler, like Uthmeier, are rewarded by the person who solicits their contributions.

“The donors who are recruited by builders are said to be in the ‘downline’ of the bundler,” the person added. “The bundler will often reward those in their ‘downline’ with special access at events, private meetings or conference calls with the candidate.”

In most cases, however, the bundler is a professional political fundraiser or a lobbyist, not a taxpayer-funded staffer who works for a candidate’s official government office.