Under the leadership of Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron Desantis, a Missouri-based railroad and transport company that contributed generously in support of his campaign saw an astonishing 280-fold increase in its Florida state government contract awards. A construction aggregates firm that contributed $82,500 was awarded $30 million in new contracts. And a highway and civil site contracting firm that gave $22,500 saw its contracts grow 15-fold. They are just a few of the companies — mostly small and mid-sized construction firms — identified by The Intercept that saw a bonanza of lucrative contracts under the Republican governor, who has styled himself as a successor to Donald Trump and a foe to corporate America’s household names.

The railroad company, Herzog Contracting, only received $115,000 in contracts under former Republican Gov. Rick Scott and did not donate to his campaign. Since the 2018 gubernatorial race, by contrast, the firm has given $350,000 to DeSantis or his state committee and has so far received $32.7 million in contracts from the Florida Department of Transportation, including work on a commuter rail project.

At a moment when many large, image-conscious corporations have purportedly distanced themselves from Trump and his style of politics, another tier of companies is leaning in.

It’s not unusual for corporate campaign donors to be awarded government contracts when their favored politician attains their desired office. But in Florida, where the governor’s record-setting $177 million war chest has fueled talk about his possible plans to run for president in 2024, the sharp increase in contracts to certain DeSantis donors raises concerns about the limits of campaign finance regulation. It also shows how at a moment when many large, image-conscious corporations have purportedly distanced themselves from Trump and his brand of politics, another tier of companies is leaning in.

Herzog’s national political interests, for instance, appear in some cases to align with those of DeSantis: Earlier this year, the company’s address appeared on an LLC’s disclosure of a $300,000 contribution to a super PAC backing Missouri Republican Senate candidate Eric Schmitt, and the firm has also funded a Missouri committee called “Let’s Go Brandon PAC.”

And while DeSantis this spring cracked down on one corporation over its opposition to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay Bill” — yanking the special tax status that had long allowed Disney, in an astounding case of corporate reverence, to operate as if under its own government and avoid Florida state taxes — for the stunt he pulled earlier this month, the governor hired an aviation company that had previously donated to his fellow Florida Republicans to fly and abandon immigrants in Martha’s Vineyard.

Boosting DeSantis’s campaign are contributions from 18 companies — including construction, consulting, and utility firms — that received a total of more than $1.68 billion in contracts from state agencies during his time in office. A handful of these firms were relatively dormant for political contributions in other cycles; three have not given to statewide Republican candidates since 2002.

contracts-contribution-govs-rickscott-rondesantis

Of the 18 major contractor-donors The Intercept has identified, at least 13 secured most of their contracts through invitations to bid, a process meant to ensure competition and insulate contract awards from potential political influence. State agencies, rather than the governor’s office, administer most contracts, and in some cases, like highway construction bids, which are governed by a different statute, local and district level agencies determine bidding eligibility. Reached for comment, one contractor said it would be “impossible” to be awarded a contract linked to a political contribution because of the Department of Transportation’s “very very stringent bidding process.”

But as Florida’s economy has grown, and the state has moved to assign more contracts at a faster rate, the procurement process has evolved to make it easier for the state to contract for necessary services. Two attorneys who have worked closely on Florida state contract procurements, and spoke to The Intercept on the condition of anonymity for fear of professional reprisal, said that the evolution has made the procurement process more flexible for the state by funneling larger contracts through a process that includes negotiation. The contracts reviewed here were mostly awarded through another process whereby awards are designed to go to the responsive bid that costs the least.

There is no evidence that DeSantis himself exerted influence over the contracts referenced in this story. There have been few challenges to contracts during his time in office, although his Department of Education was criticized earlier this year for discussing contractual work with a firm owned by a former lawmaker before the start of the official bidding process.

Beyond Herzog Contracting, at least 17 other firms gave contributions ranging from $1,000 to $350,000 to DeSantis’s PAC or his gubernatorial campaigns and received contracts, ranging from $211,000 to just under $700 million, during his first term in office. At least six of the companies received no contracts under DeSantis’s predecessor, now-Sen. Rick Scott, and gave nothing or minimally to his campaign or state PAC. (Some made contributions for electioneering communications under Scott or DeSantis, which are not considered campaign funds and are excluded from this analysis.)

Donors and Contract Recipients Under Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis

Company Donations to Scott Donations to DeSantis Contracts under Scott Contracts under DeSantis

AE Engineering

$0 $10,000 $18,300,000 $43,400,000

Ajax Building Company

$0 $3,000 $61,400,000 $161,400,000

AUM Construction, Inc.

$0 $10,000 $5,700,000 $30,500,000

Certified Thermographic Service

$0 $3,000 $0 $500,000

Chinchor Electric, Inc.

$500 $1,000 $35,700,000 $64,400,000

DNA Comprehensive Therapy Services

$0 $30,000 $1,500,000 $4,300,000

Earthscapes Unlimited

$500 $3,000 $0 $6,300,000

Emerald Coast Striping

$0 $5,000 $355,400 $17,500,000

Hale Contracting

$0 $10,000 $1,000,000 $12,400,000

Halley Engineering

$500 $18,500 $261,500,000 $481,700,000

Herzog Contracting

$0 $350,000 $115,000 $32,700,000

Johnson Bros. Corporation

$0 $10,000 $195,600,000 $696,900,000

Kane Financial Services, LLC

$2,000 $200,000 $0 $211,000

M of Tallahassee

$0 $22,500 $5,000,000 $74,000,000

Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough

$0 $31,000 $0 $1,200,000

Palm Beach Aggregates, LLC

$0 $82,500 $0 $30,000,000

Ryan Inc., Southern

$0 $10,000 $0 $8,300,000

Visualscape

$100 $4,000 $11,500,000 $19,400,000

Total

$3,600 $803,500 $597,670,400 $1,685,111,000

 

Scott also counted on corporate support as governor — and in some cases, received contributions from the same companies — but he and DeSantis have distanced themselves from one another as they pursue growing political ambition. While DeSantis has turned up his Trump-inspired persona, Scott has maintained a more measured tone. When DeSantis cracked down on Disney, Scott declined to take his side. Saying that his “experience with Disney had been positive,” the former governor hesitated to endorse a change to the corporate-friendly rule.

Still, the two governors serve similar political interests: Scott did support the state’s anti-gay legislation, and within weeks, he was telling the press that he had canceled his Disney+ subscription and was “not planning on going back” to Disney World. His GOP midterm agenda included a declaration that “there are two genders,” the elimination of race and ethnicity questions from government forms, and a goal to complete the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border — and name it for former President Trump.

It’s not unusual for the state to extend existing contracts it deems successful, and some of the firms were also awarded contracts during Scott’s tenure. Johnson Bros. Corporation, of Southland Holdings, for example, received just over $195 million in contracts under Scott and saw it more than triple to over $696 million under DeSantis. The firm did not donate to Scott’s campaign and gave $10,000 in support of his successor. Hale Contracting and Ajax Building Company likewise donated in favor of DeSantis and subsequently saw their contracts increase.

Several others, however, gave nothing to Scott and received no contracts under his tenure, then saw their fortunes shift under DeSantis. The construction and aggregate source firm Palm Beach Aggregates, LLC, for example, gave $82,500 to DeSantis and has so far has been awarded $30 million in contracts from the Department of Environmental Protection. The firm did not donate to or receive contracts from Scott during his time in office, nor did three others that gave contributions ranging from $3,000 to $31,000 to DeSantis and his PAC and were awarded contracts ranging from $500,000 to $8.3 million from various state agencies.

A company called DNA Comprehensive Therapy Services contributed $30,000 to DeSantis and has been awarded $4.3 million in contracts, which were exempt from the typical bidding process because the firm provides services for children with autism. The company did not contribute to Scott and was awarded $1.5 million in contracts during his time in office. A spokesperson said the company’s funding was a result of a state grant application process that enabled it to serve children “who otherwise would be unable to access care.”

The other companies referenced in this story did not respond to requests for comment.

“We’re just talking about a whole lot more money here,” said Saurav Ghosh, a former enforcement attorney at the Federal Election Commission’s Office of General Counsel. Pointing to the combination of DeSantis’s record fundraising haul and similarities to a case that came before the FEC this spring, Ghosh told The Intercept that in his view, “DeSantis’s state PAC is a de facto war chest for a presidential campaign.”

“DeSantis’s state PAC is a de facto war chest for a presidential campaign.”

To make his point, Ghosh drew a comparison to an FEC complaint that the Campaign Legal Center, where he is now director of federal campaign finance reform, filed in August 2020 against Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., then a state legislator, for continuing to operate a state committee after he resigned to run for U.S. Congress. FEC rules prohibit federal candidates from using funds generated at the state level for their federal campaigns, in part because most states permit corporations to fund candidates directly, which is banned at the federal level. Donalds had formed a state committee — which in Florida functions like a super PAC, with virtually no limits on contributions — called Friends of Byron Donalds, and it had just under $100,000 on hand when his state campaign ended. The state committee later transferred its surplus directly to the federal PAC, which Donalds was able to tap for his successful U.S. House campaign.

This past April, the FEC finally deadlocked: In a 3-to-3 vote, the commission found itself unable to determine whether Donalds had or had not violated campaign finance law. They voted to close the complaint file.

In July, CNN reported that DeSantis’s political team had determined possible ways to convert money from his gubernatorial campaign to a potential federal one, citing the Donalds case as an example.

The logic of the decision in that matter “opens a huge loophole for folks like DeSantis, who are tremendously successful in raising funds in a state vehicle,” Ghosh said. “Someone running DeSantis’s PAC could point to the Donalds decision and say they’re working in line with the commissioners.”

THE VILLAGES, FLORIDA - OCTOBER 23: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gives two thumbs up towards U.S. President Donald Trump after he asked him how it was going in the state as he speaks during his campaign event at The Villages Polo Club on October 23, 2020 in The Villages, Florida. President Trump continues to campaign against Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden leading up to the November 3rd Election Day.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gives two thumbs up toward U.S. President Donald Trump during his campaign event in The Villages, Fla., on Oct. 23, 2020.

Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

If Friends of Ron DeSantis, the state PAC, were to transfer the funds directly to a federal committee, or indirectly via another committee, it would fall on the FEC to determine whether it violated the law. But with the current makeup and disposition of the commission, Ghosh is not hopeful of the prospect.

“The FEC has been a dysfunctional agency for many years at this point,” said Ghosh, who left the FEC and joined the Campaign Legal Center in March. “And I think its recent decisions don’t inspire much confidence that that’s going to change anytime soon.”

FEC spokesperson Christian Hilland declined to comment beyond outlining the laws governing committee finance for state and federal campaigns.

DeSantis has not announced any plans to run for president, but reportedly his potential adversary and icon has clocked him as a threat. Last month, after DeSantis had been observed reproducing Trump’s hand gestures and vocal inflections, Rolling Stone reported that Trump had accused DeSantis of “stealing” his style. Last week, the same outlet said Trump fumed that DeSantis had copied his migrant-moving scheme.

Whether DeSantis runs or not, the possibility that he would be a contender for the Republican presidential nomination was on the table as early as 2018, when he beat Democrat Andrew Gillum by less than half a percentage point. He soon solidified his image as an aggressive, hardcore conservative in a state that twice turned out for Trump, who won Florida by less than 2 points in 2016 and 3 in 2020 after the state went for Barack Obama in 2012.

Trump has not stopped campaigning, and the prospect of a Trump-DeSantis showdown would surely test both candidates. While Trump has raised millions off of a federal investigation at his Mar-a-Lago estate, DeSantis has brought in his own millions with help from state contractors who may view him as more than just a governor. (And, of course, with the support of hard-right big business. His campaign has been bolstered by donations from 42 billionaires across 15 states, including David H. Koch Foundation President Julia Koch in Kansas, private equity magnate John W. Childs in Massachusetts, and the DeVos family in Michigan.)

As Floridian celebrities Johnny Van Zant of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Donnie Van Zant, his brother, put it in a campaign song for DeSantis, “The press don’t like him / but he sure does get my business.”