Political Donations Reveal Leanings Of U. Florida Trustees

This story was written by JACQUELYN WEINER, Independent Florida Alligator


Their crucial decisions on University of Floridaaffairs may be a mystery to some students, but the power and influence of the 13 men and women who sit on the UF Board of Trustees is no secret.

Several of the government-appointed members of the UF Board of Trustees, UFs highest governing body, have made a mark on politics using an indisputably powerful tool: money.

Since 2004, UF trustees have made a total of $207,063 in donations to political candidates, parties and political action committees, according to data from OpenSecrets.org.

Trustee Steven M. Scott, a Republican, donated the highest amount, according to contributions data.

Scott, who is the chairman of a medical investment company and founder of a nationwide HMO, has made 19 political contributions amounting to $75,236 since 2004.

The donations range from $386 to former Congressman Republican Joe Negron in October 2006 to two donations of $25,000 to the Republican National Committee in July 2004 and July 2006.

Coming in at a close second is Trustee Carlos Alfonso, also a Republican.

Alfonso has donated $74,627 to political causes since 2004.

Alfonso also gave two contributions of $25,000 to the Republican National Committee-- one in April 2004 and one in September 2005.

His most recent contribution listed on OpenSecrets.org was $2,300 to Republican Presidential Candidate John McCain on March 31.

The third-highest donor among the trustees is Democrat S. Daniel Ponce, a Miami attorney.

Ponce has given the largest sums to Republicans, including $15,000 to the Republican Party of Florida, $10,000 to the Republican National Committee and $2,300 to McCain since 2004.

Contributions and political identity could become a question when its time for state government officials to appoint members to the board.

Of UFs 13 trustees, 11 are appointed by the state.

The Board of Governors, the State University Systems highest governing body, selects five trustees, and the governor picks six, according to the Board of Governors Web site.

The other two trustees are the student body president and the chair of faculty senate, according to the Web site.

Trustees serve staggered five-year terms, and they are not required to be state residents or UF alumni, though diversity and distribution throughout the state are considered, the site states.

Trustees selected by state government are chosen and approved by the Florida Senate based on information they provide on gubernatorial appointment applications.

Trustee Alfonso said knowing people certainly doesnt hurt.

I think if the governor knows you or knows of your services or knows of your abilities, it makes a difference, Alfonso said.

However, Alfonso said he doesnt think the governors appointments are politically motivated.

He pointed out that not all of UFs trustees are registered Republicans-- the party of Gov. Charlie Crist.

According to appointment applications, two of 11 government-appointed trustees are Democrats and eight are Republicans.

Trustee Alfred C. Warrington IV did not list a political party because he is not a Florida resident and is not registered to vote in the state.

But with Warrington included, 10 of 13 trustees have made one or more political contributions since 2004.

The only government-appointed trustee who hasnt made a political contribution listed is Cynthia OConnell, who is the general manager for Hill & Knowlton public relations Tallahassee offce and widow of former UF President Stephen C. OConnell.

Warrington, a Texas resident, said Florida politics are like a foreign country to him, but some of the trustees are very passionate about it.

Theres some that are tied up in political underwear, Warrington said.

Although state government appoints most of the trustees, several trustees said they put personal politics aside when it comes to their job on the board.

When asked about what ways trustees personal politics affect their decision-making process, Alfonso said, Not in any way whatsoever.

I think it makes a difference in your role as an American, he said.

I think everyone has an obligation to support this country in whatever we see fit.

Trustee and Student Body President Kevin Reilly agreed.

I dont think that their political affiliations or the candidates that they choose to support have anything to do with it, Reilly said.

That still didnt stop the trustees from poking fun at each others political affiliations at a UF Board of Trustees meeting in September.

The absence of trustee Cynthia OConnell, who some trustees said was attending the Republican National Convention, prompted a bit of teasing.

Republicans, remember, the people you vote for? Ponce said to Alfonso, leaning back in a leather swivel chair.

Sometimes, Alfonso replied.

Ponce and trustee Courtney Cunningham, a Miami attorney, both threw in their when I was in Washington stories during the meeting.

Ponce served as special counsel to Sen. Bob Graham in 2002 and Cunningham served as deputy chief counsel at the Republican National Committee and senior legislative officer for the Labor Department, according to the Board of Trustees Web site.

According to Cunninghams appointment application, he has also held several other government positions and lobbied on issues related to UF.

Cunningham was also the brunt of more political jokes for his support of Democratic Presidential Candidate Sen. Barack Obama.

Cunninghams three donations since 2004 have been $1,000 to the National Republican Congressional Committee and contributions of $500 and $1,000 to Obama.

But he can take the teasing for the sake of the historical opportunity Obamas campaign represents, Cunningham said in an interview after the meeting.

We joke with each other about it, Cunningham said. Its all fun and games.
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