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Probe Requested After Multi-Million Dollar Donation Made To Pay Felons Fines and Fees

Democratic presidential candidate former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg speaks during a campaign event at The Rustic Restaurant, Thursday, February 27, 2020, in Houston. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)
Michael Wyke/AP
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Democratic presidential candidate former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg speaks during a campaign event at The Rustic Restaurant, Thursday, February 27, 2020, in Houston. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)

There are only days left to register to vote in the November Presidential Election. And that goes for the nearly 800 thousand felons who owe fines and fees as part of their punishment. A large scale fundraising donor has just run into a challenge that could prevent thousands from being able to register.

Attorney General Ashley Moody wants the FBI and Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate whether Michael Bloomberg violated any election laws. The former New York Mayor raised $16 million dollars to help pay for felons fines and fees.

In a letter requesting the investigation, Moody highlights a Washington Post article that claims the donation would go toward an effort aimed at boosting turnout for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. Bloomberg sent money to a fund created by the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. That’s the group behind 2018’s amendment four which cleared the way for most felons to vote after completing their sentence.

Coalition President Desmond Meade denies the fund targets any specific demographic.

"FRRC’s number one priority is ensuring that every one of the 1.4 million returning citizens have an opportunity to vote," said Meade. "When we were campaigning we explicitly said that we are fighting just as hard for that person that wish he could have voted for Donald Trump, as well as that person that wish they could’ve voted for Barrack Obama."

Florida law says it is a felony for someone to either directly or indirectly offer something of value to impact whether someone votes. Florida State University Law Professor Carla Laroche explains why that law may not apply in this situation.

“A lot of the citations attorney general Moody’s letter refer to mention voters. At this point, none of the people who are seeking for the payment of their fines fees and restitution have registered to vote," said Laroche. "In fact, under SB7066 they cannot register to vote until those fines and fees are paid.”

Bloomberg isn’t the only person that has donated to the fund either. Meade claims his organization has gotten more than 44,000 donations. To date, it has helped more than 4,000 returning citizens satisfy their legal financial obligations. MTV, VH1, the Miami Dolphins, and even celebrities have all contributed to the fund. Bloomberg’s was one of the latest and largest gifts.

Northwest Republican Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz recently blasted the donation in an interview on Fox News.

"The memo that the Bloomberg team used to go and get other people to contribute to this effort literally says we are doing this to impact whether or not these people voted," said Gaetz. "It’s not for any felon, it’s not for any circumstance there specifically targeting African Americans because they believe in Florida, African Americans will vote 90-95% for Joe Biden."

A Bloomberg donation memo obtained by Slate reads quote: “The data shows that in Florida, Black voters are a unique universe unlike any other voting bloc, where the Democratic support rate tends to be 90%-95%.”

According to a 2019 ACLU study, Black people would likely be the largest group to benefit from the donations. They make up the majority of those who owe fines, fees, and restitution as part of their sentence. That doesn’t mean that Bloomberg is paying for votes, says FSU law professor Laroche. Providing an opportunity to register, doesn’t necessarily mean people will do it.

"Paying to a fund is different from paying a voter to vote a certain way or not vote a certain way," said Laroche. "But at the end of the day, the attorney general sought investigation into whether Bloomberg has violated any laws."

The last day for people to register in the November Election is October 5.

Blaise Gainey is a State Government Reporter for WFSU News. Blaise hails from Windermere, Florida. He graduated from The School of Journalism at the Florida A&M University. He formerly worked for The Florida Channel, WTXL-TV, and before graduating interned with WFSU News. He is excited to return to the newsroom. In his spare time he enjoys watching sports, Netflix, outdoor activities and anything involving his daughter.