Florida voting rights advocacy group cleared by FDLE after allegations of illegal donations

ORLANDO, Fla. — The state’s top investigating agency has cleared a leading statewide voting rights advocacy group of any wrongdoing in a probe sparked by top state Republicans just before the November 2020 election.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis called for the probe, along with Attorney General Ashley Moody and Congressman Matt Gaetz. The FBI hasn’t contacted the Florida Restoration Rights Coalition, but the Florida Department of Law Enforcement did, tasked with trying to figure out whether donations to the nonpartisan voting rights advocacy group were being used to target minority voters.

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They found no misconduct, and FRRC Executive Director Desmond Meade said he knew they wouldn’t because his group has solely focused on helping former convicted felons participate in democracy regardless of race, religion or political beliefs.

“When you say ‘let my people vote,’ it’s for every American citizen who’s ever made a mistake who’s served their time,” Meade told Channel 9 investigative reporter Daralene Jones.

Their movement away from fines and fees for former convicted felons has continued, with a goal of 30,000 people this year.

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The FDLE provided 9 Investigates with the close-out letter sent to Meade and his attorneys, Fritz Scheller and Andrew Searle, in May squashing claims that former New York City mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg illegally poured money into Meade’s organization, in an effort to boost votes for Democratic candidates.

The claim was sparked by a Washington Post article dated Sept. 22, 2020. Two days later, Scheller and Searle sent a letter to FDLE commissioner Richard Swearingen denying any connection, writing:

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“Regardless of motivation behind Moody’s letter, any further investigation into FRRC is without merit … while absurd in nature, the request is disturbing in effect. The request has already had a chilling effect (which was perhaps the intent), forcing FRRC to divert time and resources, and serving as a distraction from FRRC’s laudable effort to restore voting rights of all Florida residents plagued by felony convictions.”

The preliminary investigation cost taxpayers an undetermined amount of money. FDLE told us that the cost is hard to quantify, because the agents and analysts involved, who spent 706 hours reviewing more than 7,000 pages of evidence and attempted to contact more than 100 people who had their fines and fees paid off, would have been doing other work for the agency.

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Their efforts concluded that Bloomberg never donated to the cause, and the FRRC did not give guidance to former felons on how to vote.

“I’m concerned about the use of taxpayers’ funds on an investigation that I think early on, the executive branch of the state realized there was no “there” there. FRRC, Desmond Meade do outstanding work in the state of Florida and they should be encouraged by top Republicans in the state, instead of suppressed,” Scheller said.

Meade told us that news seven months ago sparked threats, fundraising drops and hesitation among former felons.

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“I’m like, rather than Florida trying to investigate us, Florida ought to be celebrating the fact that the people who were once considered a pariah on their community are the very same people that are leading the effort to kind of come to the rescue of the state of Florida,” Meade said.

A spokesperson for Moody’s office sent us a response to the results of the inquiry ,and included two newspaper article links to support the response.

It would be hard to read the Washington Post reporting based on a Bloomberg memo about paying off court fines and fees in an ‘effort aimed at boosting turnout for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’ and not conclude it warranted further review,” Spokesperson Kylie Mason said.

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FRRC has raised $27 million to pay the fines and fees of former convicted felons, so far impacting 44,000 people statewide. The average amount of fines or fees owed, they said, was about $1,500.

That money went to local government agency workers, like clerks or court officers, struggling financially during the pandemic.

“People were getting ready to get laid off in the court system, or furloughed, but for the fact that we were able to infuse significant sums of money into the system,” Meade said.

This year, the group has set aside $8 million to build its base of returning citizens and increase chapters nationwide, hoping to register 30,000 former felons, who would be eligible to vote in the 2022 Florida gubernatorial race and the presidential election in 2024.

“We don’t wait until election season to engage. That is something we talk about every single day because whether or not you look like me, or whether or not you agree with me, what we want is for you to be a part of this process,” Meade said.