TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Officials who work for Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration — not his campaign — have been sending text messages to Florida lobbyists soliciting political contributions for DeSantis’ presidential bid, a breach of traditional norms that has raised ethical and legal questions and left many here in the state capital shocked.
NBC News reviewed text messages from four DeSantis administration officials, including those directly in the governor’s office and with leadership positions in state agencies. They requested the recipient of the message contribute to the governor’s campaign through a specific link that appeared to track who is giving as part of a “bundle” program.
“The bottom line is that the administration appears to be keeping tabs on who is giving, and are doing it using state staff,” a longtime Florida lobbyist said. “You are in a prisoner’s dilemma. They are going to remain in power, we all understand that.”
NBC News is not naming the specific staffers who sent the text messages because it could out the lobbyists who received the messages and shared them.
DeSantis’ office did not return a request seeking comment, but one administration official acknowledged that they were fundraising for the campaign.
“I’m not sure what every EOG staffer does on their free time and after hours, with their first amendment rights, but I wouldn’t be shocked if team eog somehow raised more money than lobbyists,” the administration official said in a text message, referring to an acronym for the governor’s office. “I can confirm I (and many other staff) personally donated.”
Generally, political staffers are charged with raising money for political campaigns, and aides on the official side are walled off from those operations.
The legality of the solicitations depends on a series of factors, including whether they were sent on state-owned phones, or if they were sent on state property. A longtime Florida election law attorney said that even if the DeSantis aides are fundraising for the campaign in their personal capacity, off the government clock, it still raised ethical questions.
“At a minimum, even if they are sitting in their home at 9 p.m. using their personal phone and contacting lobbyists that they somehow magically met in their personal capacity and not through their role in the governor’s office, it still smells yucky,” the attorney said. “There’s a misuse of public position issue here that is obvious to anyone paying attention.”
But the practice was still jaw-dropping for those who have long been involved in Florida politics.
NBC News spoke with 10 Republican lobbyists in Florida, all of whom said they couldn’t remember being solicited for donations so overtly by administration officials — especially at a time when the governor still has to act on the state budget.
That process that involves DeSantis using his line-item veto pen to slash funding for projects that the same lobbyists whom they are asking for political cash have a professional stake in. Most of the lobbyists said they felt pressure to give to the governor’s campaign.
“What the f— am I supposed to do,” one lobbyist said. “I have a lot of business in front of the DeSantis administration.”
“The ethics behind this is questionable at best, especially when the budget has yet to be acted on,” another Republican lobbyist said.
“It is walking a very close line to what is ethical and possibly legal. It is state employees leveraging their official position to ask people whose livelihood depend on access to state government for money,” a Florida lobbyist said.
“Using a bundle code makes it look like certain employees get credit with the campaign,” the person added. “It’s very questionable.”
DeSantis launched his presidential campaign on Wednesday, in a Twitter Spaces conversation with Elon Musk that was marred with technical glitches that at times overshadowed the event itself.
On Thursday, DeSantis’ campaign announced it had raised $8.2 million in its first 24 hours, a staggering sum.
DeSantis has framed much of his political persona as a political outsider whose goal is to “drain the swamp.” His campaign store quickly started offering t-shirts saying “DeSantis breaks systems” after the flubbed Twitter rollout, which his campaign is saying was due to such a high level of interest that the social media platform simply could not handle.
“The practice feeds the DeSantis corrupt swampy meme perfectly for opponents. For no f—— reason,” said another veteran Florida Republican. “Hard to be Mr. Break the Internet and Swamp when you do this. Really dumb.”
Republican consultants and fundraisers in other states told NBC News they have not heard of a similar situation of state employees trying to get political contributions, and it would raise serious questions if their clients tried a similar approach.
“If any of my clients had legislative staff sending out donation links, we would be having a hard conversation,” a Republican fundraiser who works on federal elections said.
The person added that regardless of legal implications, the optics of taxpayer-funded staff asking lobbyists for political cash are bad.
“Whoever is telling these kids to do this has lost their damn mind,” said another Florida Republican lobbyist.