Vote Buying: South Florida's Richest Are Calling the Shots in This Election
Earlier this month, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama spent most of their second debate falling over each other to prove who cares more about middle-class voters.
"The middle class is getting crushed," Romney said. "That's what this election is about. It's about who can get the middle class in this country a bright and prosperous future." Obama quickly struck back, whacking Romney over his secretly recorded "47 percent" speech. "[He was talking about] people who are working hard every day," Obama said. "I want to fight for them."
It was all malarkey. Truth is, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling — which opened the floodgates for unlimited spending by corporations and billionaires — both candidates are more beholden than ever to the 1 percent.
So far, Romney and Obama's wealthiest supporters have pumped $275 million into just the three biggest SuperPACs — the secretive organizations that can take in and spend limitless cash. In all, there are 947 SuperPACs wielding more than half a billion dollars this election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign finance watchdog.
"The system is based on how many wealthy people you know rather than how many votes you can get," says David Donnelly, executive director of D.C.-based Public Campaign Action Fund, a nonprofit aimed at strengthening campaign finance rules. "As a candidate for president, you spend a huge amount of time thinking about the concerns and problems of those at the top because those are the people you hear from the most."
The fat cats bankrolling both campaigns aren't just throwing around millions out of charity either; they expect to get something in return.
"You're seeing a lot of oil money going to Romney because they want more robust drilling offshore," Donnelly says. "And Obama is getting a lot of Hollywood money because of their concerns with piracy of intellectual properties in China."
South Florida is no exception. In fact, with the state emerging as one of the nation's key swing votes, the richest of the rich in our neck of the woods are intent on getting their money's worth.
Through federal finance reports, New Times has found the six locals who have funneled the most to the campaigns, scouted out just how much richer they are than the rest of us — and most important, tried to suss out just what they hope to gain by getting their guy elected.
Rich Guys for Obama:
Donor: Chris Korge, Coral Gables attorney and business investor.
Contribution: Bundled at least $500,000 for Obama.
How rich is he? Korge rocks a seven-bedroom, eight-bathroom compound near Old Cutler Road that he bought for $1.3 million in 1996. In February, he welcomed Obama for a $15,000-per-person fundraiser in his backyard, a concrete-enclosed pad that includes a pool, a hot tub, and a bar. In 2008, Korge convinced his neighbor, über-hip-hop producer Timbaland, to perform at his fundraiser for Hillary Clinton.
Source of his riches: He's a lawyer who made a fortune representing companies doing business at Miami International Airport. He is currently partners with one of his former clients in airport-concessions deals at MIA and airports around the country, as well as an investor and senior adviser at the Americas Group, a global business consulting firm.
Political infamy: Korge's cousin, disgraced former Miami Beach Mayor Alex Daoud, wrote in his tell-all book, The Sins of South Beach, that Korge tried to bribe him twice when he still ran the city in the early 1990s. (Korge has denied this.) Korge also stayed over at the White House on numerous occasions when Slick Willy was prez.
What would he gain from an Obama win? His company, the Americas Group, is itching to help American companies open up shop in Cuba. During his first term, Obama has relaxed some sanctions against the Castro regime. Last year, he lifted some travel restrictions and allowed Americans to send up to $500 per quarter to Cubans. Can you say Havana bonanza?
Donor: Steven J. Green, Miami Beach philanthropist and CEO of real estate firm Greenstreet Partners.
Contribution: Bundled at least $500,000 for Obama.
How rich is he? In 1987, he and his wife, Dorothea, donated $2.5 million to renovate the west campus library at Florida International University. Twenty-two years later, they dropped $10 million greenbacks for FIU's College of Medicine. The couple kick back inside the ten-bedroom, nine-bathroom La Gorce Country Club estate they bought for $10.7 million in 2004.
Source of his riches: From 1988 to 1996, Green was chairman and chief executive of luggage giant Samsonite Corp. He guided the firm out of bankruptcy in 1993 and took it public after expanding into Eastern Europe and the Middle East. He resigned in 1996 and is currently chairman and CEO of Greenstreet Real Estate Partners.
Political infamy: In 1994, Steven and Dorothea were among 938 Bill Clinton donors who were allegedly rewarded for their fundraising efforts with White House sleepovers in the Lincoln bedroom. After contributing $51,000 to Bill Clinton's reelection effort, the prez named Green U.S. ambassador to Singapore, a cushy post he held until 2001.
What does he gain from Obama? Another plum overseas diplomatic assignment. How's Belgium sound, Stevey?
Donor: Barbara Stiefel, Coral Gables philanthropist and retired pharmaceutical executive.
Contribution: $1 million to the Priorities USA Action SuperPAC.
How rich is she? The 59-year-old retiree has an alleged net worth of $120 million, according to Forbes Magazine. She resides in a modest three-bedroom condo on Coral Way that cost $1.1 million back in 2004.
Source of her riches: In 1847, her family established the Stiefel Medicinal Soap Co. By 1977, the company, now specializing in dermatology products, relocated to Coral Gables and grew into an international giant with $180 million in annual sales. In 2009, her family cashed out, selling to United Kingdom-based GlaxoSmithKline for $3.6 billion.
Political infamy: None. Stiefel's been a ghost until she dropped a Brink's truck of cash on Obama's reelection efforts.
What does she gain from an Obama win? The SuperPAC getting her cash promises to "draw clear contrasts between progressive policies and those of the far right," so maybe she's a do-gooder liberal at heart? Nah, she's probably angling for a pillow party in the Lincoln bedroom.
Rich Guys for Romney:
Donor: Bill Koch, the 72-year-old industrialist who owns Palm Beach-based Oxbow Carbon, one of the world's largest providers of natural gas, coal, and petroleum.
Contributions: $3 million to the Restore Our Future SuperPAC.
How rich is he? He's more bawse than Rick Ross. The MIT grad has a net worth of $4 billion, according to Forbes, and lives in a $25.9 million mansion in Palm Beach. He dropped $2.3 million for the world's only known photograph of Billy the Kid and spent $65 million more to man his own sailing team in the 1992 America's Cup, which he won. Oh, and he built himself his own 420-acre Western ghost town on his 6,400-acre ranch in Colorado, complete with a saloon and church.
Source of his riches: He sold his stake in Koch Industries to his brothers Charles and David for $470 million in 1983. His current company, Oxbow, produces $4 billion in annual revenues.
Political infamy: His billionaire brothers are the sugar daddies behind the Tea Party movement, funneling more than $100 million to right-wing causes.
What does he gain from a Romney win? In addition to keeping his Bush-era tax cuts alive, Koch will also profit from the Republican nominee's energy platform. It calls for loosening the regulations and permitting process for oil and natural gas exploration in the nation's national reserves, as well as amending the Clean Air Act to exclude the regulation of carbon.
Donor: Irving Moskowitz, multimillionaire Orthodox Jewish doctor from Miami Beach.
Contributions: $1 million to the American Crossroads SuperPAC.
How rich is he? Moskowitz and his wife own a $5.4 million, seven-bedroom, six-bathroom Spanish-style mega-villa on North Bay Road. Through his Moskowitz Foundation, which has $52 million in assets, he has given more than $30 million toward Jewish expansion groups in Israel.
Source of his riches: The retired physician opened the first hospital in the depressed town of Hawaiian Gardens, California, becoming a local hero. Then town officials turned to Moskowitz in 1988 to run a money-losing bingo parlor, which he turned into a $10 million-a-year bonanza.
Political infamy: In 1997, he sparked a crisis for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by purchasing a house in eastern Jerusalem and allowing Jewish settlers to move in. Right-wingers threatened to abandon Netanyahu if he evicted them, and his police commissioner warned that Moskowitz's move could "trigger riots and a renewal of the Palestinian intifada." In 2010, while President Obama was meeting with Netanyahu, Moskowitz orchestrated the demolition of the historic Shepherd Hotel in East Jerusalem for a new Jewish apartment complex. The move, which violated agreements with Palestinians, put Obama in a pickle.
What would he gain from a Romney win? Mitt wouldn't block Moskowitz's efforts to colonize more of the Holy Land with Jewish settlers.
Donor: Miguel Fernandez, chairman of MBF Health Care Partners, a Coral Gables-based private equity firm.
Contribution: $1 million to the Restore Our Future Super PAC.
How rich is he? Fernandez owns two gargantuan waterfront castles: a $36.3 million, eight-bedroom, ten-bathroom mansion on five acres in Cocoplum and a $5.8 million, ten-bedroom, nine-bathroom palace in Coconut Grove with its own private beachhead. He's also the owner of the Little River Plantation, an exclusive 4,000-acre camping and hunting ranch in the hills between Tallahassee and Havana, Florida.
Source of his riches: Fernandez is a master flipper of companies offering health-care services. In 1975, he founded Group Tech Systems, a national insurance database, which he soon flipped for a huge profit. In 2003, his Physicians Healthcare Plans sold for $178 million. The next year, Fernandez hit the big time by selling another firm, CarePlus Health Plans, to Humana for a cool $408 million. His current company, MBF, has $500 million in capital to invest in start-up health-care efforts.
Political infamy: In 2008, the Federal Election Commission fined two of Fernandez's former companies, CarePlus and CAC-Florida Medical Centers, $128,000 for improper contributions to Alex Penelas' failed U.S. Senate campaign. According to the FEC, Fernandez "directed his executive assistant to carry out tasks during work hours, using corporate resources to plan a fundraiser for the Penelas Committee and also permitted corporate funds to be spent on the fundraiser."
What does he gain from a Romney win? The abolition of Obamacare would add to the bottom line of Fernandez's health-care empire.