Saturday’s barn-burner election to decide the next chair of the Florida Democratic Party (FDP) came down to the wire between Annette Taddeo and Nikki Fried. Taddeo was promising a “reset,” while at the same time lobbing bombs into the media, and threatening to flush out the old guard in the party whom she said “bankrupted the FDP, committed PPP fraud, and left full-time FDP employees with no healthcare.”
Meanwhile, Fried chose to ignore the malodorous stench seeping from the dark recesses of the Democratic party and instead promised “something new.” Exactly what would be new, besides Fried herself, remains unclear.
On Saturday, Florida Democrats decided they didn’t want the “reset” that Taddeo was offering. Instead, by a slim margin, they chose to maintain the status quo and go with “new” Nikki Fried.
The trouble is, “new Nikki Fried” is just the same as the old Nikki Fried, only with a new title. And like Fried, the FDP has a financial disclosure problem. Perhaps that’s why they chose a leader with a particular expertise in hiding the facts.
The ethics case against Fried for her failure to file accurate financial disclosures will go before the ethics commission on March 10th. Her lawyers are claiming she “didn’t know what she didn’t know” as the official excuse. But the fact remains that she hid her ownership in a marijuana company, failed to disclose the source of $166,000 in cash that appeared in her checking account, had some bad math to the tune of another $25,000, then only acknowledged the problem after The Capitolist called her on it.
Now Fried is inheriting the leadership of a political party with a similar problem. To date, Florida Democrats still haven’t come clean on how they managed to score about $800,000 through a federal PPP loan intended for businesses, while political parties were explicitly ineligible for the funds. Thanks to Annette Taddeo’s tweet this weekend, we have at least one Democrat openly accusing the party of committing fraud in order to get the cash.
The last time anyone covered the FDP’s PPP scandal on October 9, 2020, GOP Congressman Mike Waltz was raising a stink about it, calling for an investigation by the Small Business Administration’s Inspector General. Since then, it’s been nothing but crickets.
Meanwhile, just last December, Republican Joe Harding was indicted by a federal grand jury and charged with six felony counts for allegedly doing the same thing as the FDP: lying about the number of people their respective organization(s) employed, and using the money for purposes other than what was intended.
While we still don’t have all the information because the Florida Democratic Party has yet to release key documents, the similarities between the two cases are remarkable.
Harding resigned only a day after he was named in a federal indictment last December. The U.S. Attorney’s Office alleged that Harding falsely claimed a certain amount of revenue and a total of six employees between two businesses, even though, according to the indictment, “the defendant well knew” neither business had any employees. In the indictment, those false claims are the first act in a three-act play. The wire fraud charges stem from those alleged falsifications being transmitted over the internet, and the other two charges stem from Harding allegedly moving the fraudulently obtained cash after it was received, using it for reasons that weren’t authorized. All told, Harding stands accused of obtaining $150,000 from the federal Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program. [Source: US Attorney’s Office]
Notably, the EIDL program Harding tapped was dramatically expanded through the CARES Act, which was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump during the pandemic. But the CARES Act also birthed another program very similar to EIDL: the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).
From stage left, enter the Florida Democratic Party. In 2020, Democrat officials were so concerned about cash flow that, as Taddeo noted on Twitter, it appears someone at FDP headquarters likely signed off on transmitting similarly false information over state lines in order to obtain about $800,000 in federal funds intended for small business owners and their employees. FDP ran the application through another entity it controlled, the Florida Democratic Party Building Fund, and not the Florida Democratic Party itself, but has refused to make the application public.
It’s worth saying again that political parties like the FDP were explicitly ineligible for PPP funding. The program was intended for businesses looking to retain employees during the pandemic lockdown. So in order to not get their application disqualified immediately, they applied as the FDP Building Fund because, technically, it wasn’t a political party, it was a not-for-profit corporation created the year before, with the mission to construct a headquarters for the FDP. In short, FDP used a shell company to circumvent the rule that political parties were ineligible.
But they still had a problem: the Paycheck Protection Program was supposed to be used, as you might have guessed, to “protect the paychecks” of business employees. And the FDP Building Fund, Inc. had exactly zero employees. That means in order to justify the amount being asked for in the loan, someone at the FDP or the FDP Building Fund electronically transmitted a document with information about the number of people employed by the organization in order to justify the $800,000 loan. If they told the truth and said they had zero employees and still needed $800,000, and that slipped past the bank, the FDP probably would have released the document by now. They haven’t, and so we’re left to speculate as to what the application actually said.
Annette Taddeo thinks she knows the answer: that’s the specific “fraud” she alleged on Friday.
But fudging the application and transmitting it across state lines isn’t the only potential illegality, as the U.S. Attorney’s office pointed out in the Harding case. Shortly after the FDP Building Fund received $780,000 or so in federally-backed loans, all the money was transferred to the Florida Democratic Party to cover expenses that the organization knew in advance they were ineligible for in the first place. We know that because it’s already been reported to the Federal Election Commission that the FDP got the cash in violation of the CARES Act.
On the surface, there appears to be little difference between what Harding has been accused of versus what the FDP appears to have done: using an organization with zero employees to qualify for federal funds, transmitting the applications over the internet, and then using the funds for purposes other than what they were intended.
The FDP says they paid the money back. But so did Joe Harding.
Is there a double standard at work? Certainly Harding should face justice if the charges prove true. But is anyone even looking at the FDP’s case?
In trying to rebuild a broken and horribly misguided Democratic Party, Nikki Fried definitely has her work cut out for her. But as Annette Taddeo rightfully pointed out, the party should start with a clean slate by releasing the documents and unmasking anyone who may have signed off on a false PPP application. Then again, maybe the threat to do just that is exactly why Taddeo lost.