By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Scott Cowan's dilemma was one most politicians could only wish to have. After winning his fifth consecutive term on the Broward County Commission when no one ran against him, Cowan was faced with deciding how to spend in excess of $130,000 that was sitting in his campaign fund.
Florida's campaign finance laws narrowed Cowan's options. After paying off financial obligations, Cowan could: give it back to his contributors, give it to a political party, put it into Broward County's general fund, or donate it to a charity.
Cowan, a commissioner with a sharp, strategical mind and a prodevelopment bent, donated about $33,000 to various charities. He also gave $19,500 to the Democratic Party. He put $5000 into the county's general fund.
As for the campaign's obligations, he gave roughly $37,000 -- in both consulting fees and reimbursed expenses -- to campaign manager Sam Fields, his long-time friend and attorney for the law firm Ruden, McCloskey, Smith, Schuster & Russell.
He also gave more than $16,000 in salary and expenses to his two daughters, Courtney and Amanda, 21 and 24 years old, respectively. Added to the $9000 they'd already been paid from the Cowan campaign, it brought the total his daughters made from his campaign to more than $25,500.
What did Cowan's daughters -- one of whom was living in Gainesville at the time -- do to earn their money?
For at least $10,000 of it, absolutely nothing.
Cowan says two-thirds of the final $15,000 paid to his daughters was for doing no work at all. The 52-year-old commissioner justifies this feat of familial wallet-stuffing through questionable semantics, with the word obligation being the term in question.
Cowan says Courtney and Amanda, who are both University of Florida graduates, had agreed to work on the campaign through the upcoming November 3 election day. When he won the nonexistent race on July 17 -- the deadline for other candidates to qualify to run against him -- he says he owed his daughters for the work they didn't have to do.
So what if the campaign ended and there was no work to be done? It was still an obligation, he says.
"They got paid for time they had committed to doing, which is all totally within the legal bounds of what you can do," he claims.
An unapologetic Cowan says people can think what they want about this apparent nepotism and the way he spent his campaign money, but he wants to make one thing clear: The payments to his daughters were legal.
While a candidate in the state of Florida is forbidden to pay himself or his spouse any money from the campaign other than expenses directly related to the campaign, a candidate can legally pay his children for working on a political race.
As for the legality of the $10,000 giveaway, a lawyer for the state's elections office says it all depends.
"The critical issue is the nature of the obligation," said Mike Cochran, general counsel for Florida's Division of Elections. "I'm not going to say he violated the law or didn't violate the law."
The law is quite vague in regard to what does and does not constitute a financial obligation, leaving it pretty much up to the politician to decide, Cochran says.
A review of a dozen candidates' campaign folders showed only one other politician who gave contributors' money to his or her offspring: Suzanne Gunzburger, another incumbent commissioner who ran unopposed, gave her son $10,000 ($3000 of which he later returned to the campaign) in consulting fees. The difference is that the son, Ron Gunzburger, is a professional campaign consultant and lawyer by trade.
"She pays me just like any client does," says Ron Gunzburger, who estimates he spent more than 100 hours on the campaign, strategizing issues, polling, and designing ads. "I don't think Scott Cowan's daughters worked for any other politician."
The news of Cowan's payments to his daughters took one commission hopeful by surprise.
"I'm not saying anything because my mouth is hanging open," said Kristin Jacobs, who unseated Cowan-ally Sylvia Poitier in the Democratic primaries and is a heavy favorite to defeat Republican candidate Bob Shelley in the upcoming general election.
"And I have a 15-year-old who needs money for a car," Commissioner John Rodstrom -- who helped Jacobs beat Poitier -- said with some sarcasm when told about it.
Neither Rodstrom nor Jacobs would comment any further on the issue, citing the need to build up relations with Cowan after Poitier's defeat. The loss of Poitier is a heavy blow to Cowan's political power, as it breaks up the four-member majority voting bloc Cowan controlled on the seven-member commission.
Cowan raised a total of $208,000 for his campaign and spent some $70,000 before the July deadline, much of it going for computer and phone costs. He's not sorry about spending as much of it as he did on his daughters.
"Frankly, I want to give them a chance to earn some money," Cowan says. "Someone was going to make that money and it might as well have been them."
The Cowan family, for the record, isn't struggling financially. On campaign reports Cowan listed his net worth at $481,000. He made $169,000 last year -- with the brunt of it coming from his county salary ($64,000) and from his job as marketing director with the law firm of Atlas, Pearlman, Trop & Borkson ($80,000). He lives in a house in Davie worth roughly half a million dollars and recently sold a $115,000 house in Gainesville -- which is where Courtney lived while she worked for the campaign.
Before getting her share of the final $15,000, Courtney was paid roughly $5600 from the campaign in contract work and reimbursed expenses, which begs the question: How did she work for her father's campaign when she lived nearly 300 miles away?
Cowan says Courtney did it with the help of modern technology; a fax, a computer, and a modem. He says he faxed Courtney campaign checks and receipts, which she entered into her computer and sent back to his home, which doubled as his campaign office, via modem.
While it seems like a convoluted and inefficient method to complete such a menial task, Cowan says the procedure was "pretty easy." Apparently it was also costly, as Courtney was paid at least $3000 in reimbursed expenses.
As to how much time she actually put into the campaign, Cowan says he doesn't know "how quickly she entered the stuff, but I would venture to say she worked 20 hours a month." If this rather vague estimation is taken as fact, then she worked about 240 hours. She made about $13,100, which comes out to an hourly rate of almost $55 an hour for punching numbers into a computer.
He says Courtney, who was featured in Teen magazine in 1993 as an aspiring model, was ready to put in 20 hours a week once the campaign got going in July. When there wasn't one, she went to California instead, where, Cowan puts it with a laugh, she wants to "make her fortune." She couldn't be reached for comment.
While Courtney entered figures, Amanda, who lives in Plantation with her mother (Cowan's former wife), passed out fliers at Cowan's campaign stops.
"That was her job," Cowan says. "When I would go one direction, she would go another and hand out literature."
Cowan says he made at least 40 campaign stops before the July deadline. While Amanda made a total of about $11,000, she made $3500 for her campaign-stop work.
When asked if she felt she'd earned all the money she made in her father's campaign, Amanda refused to comment.
"Any questions you have, you can talk to my father," she said.
It wasn't the first time Amanda made a bundle off one of her father's campaigns. Back in 1990, when Cowan actually had a challenger, she was paid $7565 according to elections-office records. She was 20 years old at the time. During Cowan's 1986 race, when Amanda was 16, she pocketed $300. Courtney, who was 13, was paid $225 from that campaign.
Cowan points out that none of the money circulating through his campaigns is public money, and he says there's only one group of people he has to answer to when it comes to spending it: his contributors.
To date, none of his contributors has complained about not getting a refund on his or her contribution. Cowan says he didn't return the unspent money to them because it is a massive task, and there would be difficulties in closing out the campaign account. Instead he let some of his bigger contributors -- like lobbyist Ron Book and ambulance-company owner Malcolm Cohen -- pick a charity for the campaign to give money to.
Cowan doesn't do much grassroots fundraising. The vast majority of his political money comes from developers, builders, shipping companies, business people, and lawyers -- people who probably couldn't care less what he does with the money so long as he wins.
"If a contributor objects to it, I would certainly have to assess again whether or not it was the right thing to do," he says of the payoff to Courtney and Amanda. "But if [a potential complainer is] not a contributor, they have no say over what I do with the money. There is no public financing involved in a county commission campaign."
The Forman family -- which owns an investment empire and has sold tracts of land to the county in the past -- is one of Cowan's top political supporters. Family members and their companies gave a total of at least $5000 to Cowan's recent campaign. The family's patriarch, Hamilton C. Forman, didn't return phone calls left at his office from New Times.
"I'm not saying it doesn't bother me," said Parent. "But I'm not knowledgeable about it, and I don't want to say anything. I'm not a pal of Scott's. I don't really know the man.