Florida Trend | Florida's Business Authority

This Accountant Keeps Candidates Squeaky Clean

When sloppy record-keeping triggered a federal audit of Mel Martinez’s 2004 Senate campaign several years ago, the freshman Republican lawmaker blamed the accounting errors on the volume of donations he’d received. His campaign staff, he explained, had simply been "overwhelmed" by the $12 million it raised and spent over a 10-month period. As a result, his disclosures were "not at the level it needed to be."

Nancy Watkins
Nancy Watkins? [Photo: Mark Wemple]

To straighten out the mess, he turned to Nancy Watkins, a no-nonsense, Tampa-based CPA who has specialized in campaign accounting for more than 25 years.

The 54-year-old Florida native is a key behind-the-scenes player in Republican politics, serving as the treasurer for dozens of candidates and political groups throughout the state and across the nation. Crunching numbers and depositing checks is the easy part. Treasurers of a modern-day political campaign must grasp the intricacies of federal and state election laws and develop a strategy for complying with the regulations. Precision and thoroughness is essential — the consequences of slip-ups range from public embarrassment to expensive fines or even jail time.

In a U.S. senatorial campaign, for instance, the treasurer must make sure that individual contributions flowing into the campaign don’t come from a prohibited source (such as a foreign national) and that they do not exceed the federal contribution limit of $2,400 per election. Each contribution must be properly disclosed, with the name, address, occupation or employer of the contributor, and date and amount of their contribution. Every quarter, the treasurer must file a lengthy disclosure report that summarizes total spending, total receipts, cash on hand and any debt and lists every contribution and expenditure the campaign has received and made.

As Election Day approaches, the requirements become more onerous. Any contribution of $1,000 or more received within 20 days of the election must be disclosed within 48 hours of receipt. Watkins likens it to operating a decent-sized business at warp speed: "These are multimillion-dollar businesses that start up in a very short window. U.S. Senate races go from zero to $25 million in a year and a half. We know how to run a $25-million business, so we bring that expertise to them."

Early test

Watkins chanced into the field, she says, in the late 1980s, when then-Rep. Connie Mack hired the accounting firm that she and her husband had formed in 1980 to handle the books for his non-profit foundation. Happy with the firm’s work, Mack hired Watkins to handle the accounting for his 1988 Republican Senate bid. Because the nation’s campaign finance system — a regulatory framework that Congress created in response to the Watergate scandal and other campaign finance abuses in the 1972 elections — was still in its relative infancy, compliance software was either unavailable or inadequate, says Watkins. So she designed her own, using standard database and word processing programs. The complex laws themselves didn’t intimidate her, Watkins says. The statute, in fact, seemed downright skimpy when compared to the thousands of pages of tax code she was used to dealing with.

Mack’s hiring of a local accounting firm set off alarm bells in Washington, and a team from the National Republican Senatorial Committee quickly descended on Tampa to "see if we had any clue as to what we were doing," Watkins’ husband, Robert, recalls with a chuckle.

The accountants passed the unofficial review, and as word of their practice spread, a bustling political accounting practice was born. "We never advertised. We never solicit. Unfortunately, for every 10 that approach us, we can only accept one because there is only so much of us to spread so thin," says Watkins, who took the lead of the firm’s political operations while her husband, also a CPA, concentrates more on providing professional accounting, tax, management and consulting services to more traditional business clients and individuals. "Political and public policy organizations are my domain, but I need Robert’s unique knowledge and skills in certain areas. The same happens with his more ‘normal’ accounting work with closely held for-profit entities. There are certain areas of work they need that I have a special talent for," Watkins explains.

Today, Watkins serves as the treasurer on dozens of state and federal candidates’ campaigns, political action committees, leadership PACs and various 527 groups. In any given election cycle, Robert Watkins & Co. will handle the finances of more than 100 political entities. Current and former clients include U.S. Reps. Vern Buchanan, Gus Bilirakis and Bill Posey, ex-Rep. Katherine Harris, Hillsborough County School Board member Carol Kurdell, the Tew Cardenas PAC and the Ruden McClosky Committee for Good Government.

With the advent of e-mail and the internet, Watkins has been able to expand her business nationwide. "Probably a larger volume of business at any given time might be outside Florida," she says. One rapidly growing segment of her political client base involves the tax-

exempt organizations organized under section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code to raise money for political activities like issue advocacy or voter mobilization activities. The 2002 McCain-Feingold law placed new limits on fund raising by the national party committees, which has accelerated the growth of such groups, she says. The 527 groups are required to disclose their activities and financing to the Internal Revenue Service, and her clients include more than a dozen Florida groups with innocuous-sounding names such as the Broward Coalition for Justice and Equality, Citizens for Change and Florida Leadership Alliance.

Watkins’ services don’t come cheap. The campaigns of Posey and Bilirakis, for instance, pay about $2,500 a month for Watkins’ help, according to disbursement records in their campaign finance reports. Watkins says she only works the GOP side of the ledger, sticking with those candidates who subscribe to her own ideals of "limited government and more freedom."

However, she says, "We won’t do all Republicans. There’s some Republicans you couldn’t pay me enough." Watkins says she draws the line "at ethics and integrity" and will only work for those elected officials who have run for the right reasons and "want to serve their constituents, not their own egos and ambitions." Fortunately, she says, there are "still a lot of those types left — more than enough to keep me busy."

Nancy Watkins

Nancy WatkinsRoots: Born in Miami Beach, Watkins has lived all over the U.S. because her father was a military pilot. His nine-year assignment in Washington, D.C., introduced Watkins to the national political stage. A close family friend was executive officer to President Lyndon Johnson. "It was a normal world to go to a bill signing at the Rose Garden, to go to the Easter egg hunt at the White House."

Education: Accounting degree from the University of South Florida; associate’s degree from Hillsborough Community College

Daredevil: Watkins earned her private pilot’s license in 1976 at age 21. The GOP numbers-cruncher can perform a "wingover," an aerial maneuver where the airplane enters a steep banking climb into a near stall and then allows the nose to fall into a vertical dive until a normal flight path is resumed in the opposite direction. Watkins has given up flying and skydiving but still enjoys scuba diving in the Keys.

Importance of Hiring an Experienced Treasurer: "Having a fund raiser do it is tantamount to having your sales force do your tax returns."

Credo: "Every detail matters. Somebody’s political career is on the line. That’s what I remember every day."

Political Ambitions: Watkins says she is frequently approached about running for office and considered running for former Rep. Sam Gibbons’ seat in 1994 but decided against it. "I don’t want to live in this fishbowl. I do get to see the sausage-making side of politics."