ORLANDO, Fla. - A controversial Florida program that receives hundreds of millions in tax dollars to send poor kids to private schools has ties to big money being used to influence state legislators.
9 Investigates uncovered a revealing video where the president of the organization unveiled his political strategy, and we discovered that hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions are coming from the organization's address, even though it’s not allowed to make political contributions.
Step Up For Students received $286 million this year alone. The rapidly growing program diverts tax dollars into scholarships to help poor children attend private schools.
But critics worry that the schools have little oversight, as teachers are not required to be certified and schools are not graded.
Step Up For Students is not allowed to make any political contributions, but in a video posted on YouTube, the president of Step Up talks about utilizing a PAC to flip the Democratic party.
In the 2011 video, Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up, said, “One of the primary reasons we've been so successful,we spend about $1 million every other cycle in local political races, which in Florida is a lot of money."
9 Investigates sat down with Tuthill to find out if the organization is trying to buy politicians.
“The average family of four on our program makes $25,000 a year,” Tuthill said. “They're not buying politicians. What we're doing is telling their stories."
When 9 Investigates followed the money, we uncovered hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions coming from Step Up's addresses over the past decade.
John Kirtley, a successful venture capitalist, said Step Up didn't contribute any money to political committees or candidates. He said he did and just used the Step Up address because he's also the chairman of the board for the organization.
“All my mail comes here and checks go out of here,” Kirtley said, showing 9 Investigates his personal office. “But it has nothing to do with Step Up For Students."
Kirtley said he rents the office for his personal assistant who handles all of his personal business.
9 Investigates asked if he is trying to send a signal to politicians by using the Step Up address.
“Oh, heavens no,” Kirtley said. “They know the contributions are not from the C3 and are from me."
As long as the checks are written by Kirtley and not the program, it's legal, regardless of what it sounds like on YouTube.
9 Investigates asked the president of the Florida Senate if the contributions are an ethics violation. His office is now giving the information to the Ethics and Elections committee for review.