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Big DeSantis donors land on powerful government boards

Craig Mateer during a Greater Orlando Aviation Authority board meeting at the Carl T. Langford Board Room in the Orlando International Airport, on Friday, January 7, 2022. (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/ Orlando Sentinel)
Craig Mateer during a Greater Orlando Aviation Authority board meeting at the Carl T. Langford Board Room in the Orlando International Airport, on Friday, January 7, 2022. (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/ Orlando Sentinel)
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TALLAHASSEE — A company owned by Craig Mateer, an Orlando entrepreneur, GOP megadonor and gubernatorial appointee, was paid $75,000 in September to provide travel to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ presidential campaign, federal campaign reports show.

That pales in comparison with the $1.6 million in travel expenses covered by a company associated with Scott Wagner, a South Florida lawyer and longtime friend of DeSantis who was reappointed to the South Florida Water Management District.

DeSantis has a well-documented track record of appointing big political donors to government positions where they preside over multimillion-dollar budgets, make spending and policy decisions, award contracts, and approve permits for development and water use.

“It’s exactly the kind of insider wheeling and dealing that goes on with our campaign finance system that should be illegal, but it’s not,” said Ben Wilcox, research director of the government watchdog group Integrity Florida.

DeSantis spokesman Jeremy Redfern declined to comment, referring campaign-related questions to the governor’s presidential campaign. Campaign officials and Mateer didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

An investigative report by the Miami Herald last October said DeSantis appointees raised more than $3 million to finance his reelection. The biggest donor at the time was Mateer at $400,000.

Since then, Mateer donated $1 million to the Republican Party of Florida in January. He and his wife donated a combined $19,800 to the governor’s presidential campaign. TMFB Management Services, a company he formed in June, received the two payments totaling $75,000 from the Ron DeSantis for President Committee.

Wagner surpassed that amount when he funneled $5.5 million to the DeSantis Never Back Down PAC through Faithful and Strong Policies Inc., which he set up in April. Weeks after he made the donation, DeSantis reappointed him to the South Florida Water Management District.

Quid pro quo behavior has become increasingly the norm under DeSantis, Wilcox said.

Two prime examples of it ɱthe governor’s hand in taking over Disney’s special improvement district and New College of Florida, both with the Legislature’s help.

DeSantis replaced the Reedy Creek Improvement District’s board of directors

DeSantis also replaced the board of Trustees at New College with political supporters, who named Richard Corcoran, a former House speaker and Department of Education chief, as interim president with a $1.3 million a year salary package.

On Monday, DeSantis appointed Ashley Bell Barnett to the Florida Board of Governors, which oversees the university system, after she donated the maximum amount of $6,600 to his presidential primary campaign and $20,000 to Never Back Down.

She is the daughter of state Rep. Melony Bell and daughter-in-law of former Publix Vice President Hoyt Barnett and the late Carol Jenkins Barnett. The latter is the daughter of Publix founder George Jenkins.

Other political appointees who have to DeSantis campaigns include Daytona Beach developer Mori Hosseini, a longtime supporter of DeSantis who donated the maximum individual amount of $6,600 to his primary campaign, in addition to $1 million donated by four of his companies to Never Back Down, which can accept unlimited amounts of money from individuals or businesses.

DeSantis appointed Hosseini to the University of Florida Board of Trustees.

First Coast Energy, one of the largest distributors of Shell gasoline in the United States and a major donor to DeSantis’ reelection campaign, gave Never Back Down $350,000. First Coast CEO Aubrey Edge and his wife each gave DeSantis the maximum $6,600 allowed for the primary.

DeSantis appointed Edge to the Board of Governors in 2020.

Mateer, who attended Florida State University on a basketball scholarship, is the founder and CEO of CCM Capital Group, a provider of hospitality, real estate and logistics services.

He also founded the luggage handling business Bags Inc., which he sold for $275 million in 2018 after 30 years of owning it. He sold his three-story Windermere mansion for a record $35 million in February.

DeSantis named Mateer to the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority in March 2021 and to the Florida Board of Governors a year later.

“These corporate donors are making investments in politicians, hoping for something in return,” Wilcox said. “They may be ideologically simpatico with the candidate but it goes with the basic desire to gain some position or contract.

“They’re not investing in good government but in government being good to them,” Wilcox said.

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