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Untraceable: Who sends all those political mailers?

A little after 9 in the morning on a Wednesday in late July, a batch of documents was delivered to the Florida Division of Elections in Tallahassee. The paperwork announced the establishment of a new political committee with a provocative name: Stop Benefits to Illegals NOW!

There weren’t many clues to the group’s intentions. The chairman, treasurer and registered agent were all identified as Carlie Knight, a name that had never surfaced in any of the state’s campaign finance databases. Calls and email from reporters to the addresses listed for Knight were not returned. The address for the group was one linked to an office-rental company in a strip mall in Cape Coral, where the neighbors included a nail salon and a masseuse.

Three weeks later, Stop Benefits began making its presence felt in campaigns across Florida. In House District 73, a Republican-leaning seat covering the interior parts of Manatee and Sarasota counties, the group paid for mailings accusing Joe Gruters, one of two candidates in the Republican primary, of opposing gun rights and supporting Common Core. It sent mailers on behalf of Gruters’ opponent, Steve Vernon, proclaiming him as someone who would oppose the “Obama/Clinton Syrian Refuge Program” and the use of taxpayer money to “bail out billionaires and their sports teams.”

After the ads appeared, Gruters did some detective work, but never was able to identify the source of the money being spent against him. He won anyway, beating Vernon by 385 votes out of about 23,000 cast.

But some other candidates weren’t so lucky.

Nearly 300 miles away, in the northeast corner of Florida, Sheri Treadwell says her phone began ringing about two weeks before the Aug. 30 primary election with calls and text messages from friends who had just seen a new advertisement attacking her on television. At the time, Treadwell was seen by many as the front runner in a four-way Republican primary in House District 11 in Nassau and Duval counties.

The TV spot was the first shot in a barrage of ads attacking Treadwell that Stop Benefits paid for in the closing days of her campaign — an assault that Treadwell says included commercials, YouTube videos and mail pieces. Many of the attacks were flimsy, such as one that suggested she supported Obamacare because she had been endorsed by the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

But they worked. Treadwell wound up coming in second in the race, losing to Cord Byrd by fewer than 1,600 votes out of more than 25,000 cast. Like Gruters, Treadwell has never been able to figure out who, ultimately, was behind the attacks.

“I was caught by surprise,” says Treadwell. “They had nothing to do with stopping illegal immigration other than their name. And they intentionally misled people about my longstanding record on illegal immigration and other issues.”

Ultimately, campaign finance records show that Stop Benefits to Illegals NOW! Spent more than $230,000 in various races in an 11-day stretch leading up to the primary. Almost all of its money appears to have originated from a different political committee run by Anthony Pedicini, a political consultant in Tampa whose top clients include incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran (R-Land O’ Lakes) and the Florida Justice Association, the lobbying group that represents plaintiff’s lawyers. The Justice Association was the largest individual contributor to Pedicini’s political committee.

The activities of Stop Benefits to Illegals NOW! Exemplify just how opaque political campaigns have become in Florida. And Stop Benefits is just one of dozens of political committees — or similar “electioneering communication organizations” — that together have been plowing millions of dollars this year into races for everything from county property appraisers to state senators.

The use of committees has exploded over the past few election cycles thanks largely to laws that allows them to raise unlimited amounts from donors and to coordinate their activities with campaigns. They have created a way for candidates, or their consultants, to attack opponents without risking a voter backlash. And they obfuscate which donors are paying for what advertisements, helping shield the identities of interest groups trying to get friendly ears into office.

In some cases, as much as 75% of a legislative candidate’s budget is being spent through “independent” political committees.

“Unless the law changes in a dramatic way, these committees are here to stay,” says Brett Doster, a Tallahassee political consultant who, like other top political consultants, has created a web of such committees to help his own clients. “As long as that opportunity is there, it’s going to be used.”

The committees can vanish as quickly as they appear. About a month after the primary, another document arrived at the Division of Elections office – this one announcing that Stop Benefits to Illegals NOW! Had been disbanded.

Gruters, for one, says he won’t forget. The newly elected legislator says he plans to make reforming the state’s election laws one of his chief goals in office in hopes of restoring transparency to campaigns.

Among the ideas on the table: Put direct contributions to candidates on an even footing with the committees by eliminating limits on direct contributions; mandate immediate, real-time disclosure of any donations; prohibit transfers between committees; and require more detailed information about both donors and expenditures.

“Every time I’ve tried to trace where the money could potentially have come from, the fingers are pointing at everybody else. Nobody wants to take responsibility,” Gruters says. “And that’s the whole problem with the system.”

A group called Stop Benefits to Illegals NOW! Claimed candidate Sheri Treadwell backed Obamacare. Leading before the mailers, she wound up losing.

Joe Gruters tried unsuccessfully to find out who was behind the Stop Benefits group.