Optometrists are now among the largest donors to political causes in Florida, according to state tax filings.
The eye-care specialists, who are not medical doctors, have amassed a war chest of more than $2.1 million and hired the brother of Florida’s Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, and other legendary lobbyists, to spearhead their efforts. Often using a collection of interlocking groups to move money from anonymous sources, the optometrists are boosting candidates who favor their cause while winning the ire of their rivals, the ophthalmologists, and transparency activists who decry their use of “dark money.”
Their opponents, medical doctors known as ophthalmologists, have raised a comparative pittance. Since 2013, FOCUS, one of the ophthalmologist’s PACs, has taken in $143,064. Another PAC, FOCUS EYEMED, raised $97,764, according to government reports. These PACs together raised less than one-tenth of the money raised by optometrists.
“A lot of ophthalmologists in the state won’t join the Florida Society of Ophthalmology because they worry about losing their referrals from optometrists,” said Dr. William Mallon of Vero Beach. “We are having to go hat-in-hand to our national organization to get some money, but we can’t possibly catch up.”
For optometrists, the pace of fundraising is constant. In a promotional video on the website of the Florida Optometric Association, April Jasper, looks directly into the camera and asks for money for the optometrists’ political-action committee.
“Not only do we need you to be a member of the Florida Optometric Association, but there is another way we need you to be involved, and that is by donating to our PAC,” said Jasper, “It is important to us to have that separate piece always active and always being contributed to.”
Florida’s war between optometrists and ophthalmologists has raged for decades. The optometrists have increasingly sought the prerogative to perform surgical tasks, for which 47 states (including Florida) require a medical degree.
Then-Florida Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, declared “the eyeball wars have ended,” after optometrists won the right to prescribe seven different prescription drugs in 2013. In fact, it was only a lull between rounds. After a few years of quiet but determined fundraising the optometrists are back.
Now their new push is a series of bills in the Florida legislature that would allow optometrists to expand their scope of care to perform new procedures such as laser eye surgeries.
The number of politically active non-profits in Florida has doubled from 67 to 155 since the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Citizens United vs. FEC in 2010, according to research by MapLight, a non-profit that promotes political transparency.
“The Florida Optometry Eye Health Fund had the highest revenues during the previous tax year among 501(c)(4) nonprofit organizations based in Florida,” said Laura Curlin, the data director at MapLight.
The fund raised $799,162 in 2016, which includes money for political activities, tax records show. Money collected by the Florida Optometry Eye Heath Fund Inc. is often later transferred to the Florida Optometric CCE, another lobbying group for optometrists.
In addition to hiring Michael Corcoran, the brother of Florida’s current speaker of the House, the optometrist lobby has hedged its bets. The political action committee of Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Hialeah, who is set to be speaker in the 2018-2020 legislative session, has already received $50,000 from a PAC associated with optometrists, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
The ties between the Florida Board of Optometry and its PAC are intertwined. Stephen Kepley, a Vero Beach optometrist, is a member of the Florida Board of Optometry. Tax records also list Stephen Kepley as a director of the Florida Optometry Eye Health Fund Inc., the optometrists’ non-profit arm.
The optometrists’ political-action committee, OD-EYEPAC, collects money from both the optometrists’ trade association and its non-profit arm. The Florida Optometric Association donated $535,000 to OD-EYEPAC while the Florida Optometric Eye Health Care Fund gave them $260,000 in 2016, according to FloridaPolitics.com. Slightly more than half of the $2.1 million total that optometrists gave to candidates in the past election came through OD-EYEPAC.
The efforts don’t stop at the ballot box. Lobbyists are raking in money from optometrists, fourth-quarter 2016 financial disclosures from prominent lobbyists show.
Bill Rubin of the Rubin Group received between $20,000 and $29,000 from Florida Optometry Eye Care Fund in the fourth quarter of 2016. The Florida Optometric Association also paid as much as $9,999 to that group.
The Florida Optometry Eye Care Fund paid Corcoran & Johnston, the lobbying and advocacy firm which employs Michael Corcoran some $56,000 and David Ramba’s company, the Ramba Consulting Group, between $30,000-$39,000, according to fourth-quarter 2016 disclosures required by state law.
Lobbyist David Ramba cuts a large figure in the state capital. Ramba attended a dinner at Shula’s 347 Grill, one of Tallahassee’s most expensive steakhouses in 2013. The dinner was organized by six Republican state senators and the head of the Florida Optometry Association to thank Ramba for his work on optometry legislation. When a reporter from the Tampa Bay Times questioned if the meeting violated state ethics rules, the senators denied discussing politics.
One of the attendees was former State Senator Garrett Richter, a Republican, who was then a frequent passenger on Capital Air, a private plane company owned by Ramba, who is both a lawyer and a licensed pilot. Often the lobbyist would take the controls as he flew distant lawmakers to and from the state capital, which one lawmaker jokingly referred to the operation as “Ramba Air.”
The close ties between lobbyists and elected officials is worrisome, say opponents of the optometrist’s legislative agenda.
“When Kentucky passed similar legislation in 2014, it was because there were similar close ties between legislators and lobbyists,” said Dan Briceland, a spokesperson for the American Academy for Ophthalmology. “The legislation was passed in just 11 days without much debate and what limited debate there was occurred because [U.S. Senator] Rand Paul (a licensed ophthalmologist) got involved.”
The ophthalmologists said they are being outspent and out-dazzled by major lobbyists like Ramba, just as the state capital readies for the biggest fight between optometrists and ophthalmologists that it has ever seen.
“We are outgunned up there in Tallahassee when it comes to lobbying,” said Jamie Membreno, a Kissimmee ophthalmologist. “Both in terms of money and the special relationships that optometry lobby has developed with well-placed politicians. There are more optometrists and they raise more money.”
This feature is the first in a series.