BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – A Brevard County political consultant is facing a long list of election law violations over electioneering and a defunct PAC he used during the 2020 election cycle, according to a report from News 6′s partner Florida Today.
But while the 12 cases against Robert Burns that came before the Florida Elections Commission last month present “a pretty extreme case,” according to an election law expert, things are both not as bad — and possibly a lot worse — for the man who has run local campaigns for both Republicans and Democrats, including one of the nastiest primary battles in Brevard in recent years.
FEC investigators said Burns failed to file months of finance reports for his short-lived political action committee, Friends of Florida, failed to disclose tens of thousands in contributions, regularly spent money the PAC didn’t have and failed to properly disclose political ads paid for with PAC funds, according to case files made public last week.
Burns has run campaigns for Palm Bay City Councilman Kenny Johnson and for Marcie Adkins, State Rep. Randy Fine’s challenger in the 2020 Republican primary for State House. That race was marked by bitter public accusations, which included Burns making unfounded accusations that Fine had slept with prostitutes in Facebook posts to Fine’s mother. Fine later upped the ante, amplifying a rape allegation that had been leveled at Burns by a fellow soldier during his time in the U.S. Army, which Burns has long denied.
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Fine personally filed four of the complaints that led to the FEC investigation against Burns, case files show.
Burns created the Friends of Florida PAC specifically to oppose Fine, he said. But its involvement in an unrelated town council race in Martin County that year has also led the FEC to accuse Burns of corruptly influencing an election — a possible third-degree felony, if he is charged criminally.
Altogether, investigators identified 48 separate violations spread across the 12 overlapping cases, with a whopping 116 combined counts against Burns, a FLORIDA TODAY review of the case files found.
Documents show Burns has already worked out settlements in half of the cases, agreeing to pay just $1,100 in fines so far. He continues to negotiate in five cases while another was dismissed outright.
And while most of the alleged violations are classified as first-degree misdemeanors, the FEC only has authority to issue civil penalties like fines, making the possibility of criminal charges against Burns uncertain. It was unclear this week whether the cases had been referred to law enforcement.
More problems could be ahead of him, though, as bank records among the case files show Burns may have misappropriated PAC funds, withdrawing thousands of dollars at casinos and gambling houses in May and August that same year.
While the FEC so far hasn’t touched the discovery in public filings (two additional cases are pending and remain sealed), the spending could put Burns at risk of additional violations.
Burns owned up to most of the counts against him in an interview, telling FLORIDA TODAY he wasn’t trying to hide the money or how he was spending it.
“I didn’t file them and I should have filed them,” Burns said of the reports. “And I’m willing to accept the consequences, and I have accepted the consequences and have paid the fines.”
Burns admitted to using some of the money for gambling but said he believed the portions he spent were personal funds that were fees paid for his campaign and consulting services.
His largest donor told FLORDIA TODAY there had been no discussion of Burns taking a personal cut from the donation and said he was unaware how Burns had spent the money until he was contacted for this story.
Burns blames mental health, busy election season
Investigators dinged Burns for nearly six months of unfiled finance reports for the Friends of Florida PAC between May and October 2020, which they said included about $42,000 in undisclosed contributions and about $43,000 in expenditures.
The unreported dollar amounts were inflated due to a series of failed transactions in September that resulted in multiple withdrawal attempts and credits back to the account. In reality, the total money the PAC brought in was closer to $20,000.
While the failure to file timely reports is a common election-related infraction, Tallahassee elections attorney Ronald Meyer said it was rare to see so many from a single committee.
“This is a pretty extreme case,” Meyer said. “When you see the number of reports that were missed, that’s unusual. That gives rise to the belief that they may have been trying to sandbag somebody about how much money they had and where they were spending it.”
Burns categorically denied he was trying to hide anything and spoke openly about the case with FLORIDA TODAY, even sharing a list of his few contributors, which included a Sanford pharmaceuticals executive and three Central and South Florida developers.
He blamed his failure to file the disclosures on his mental health, which he said suffered from family-related issues, the early COVID-19 pandemic and his struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder from his time as a combat medic in the U.S. Army.
That was exacerbated by what he said were “non-stop” attacks from Fine as he managed the campaign of Fine’s opponent in the 2020 Republican primary.
“With all those things, it just became the least of my priorities at the time,” Burns said. “So I was just like, I’m just going to pay the fine because there’s just too many other things I had to worry about at the time. That’s really what it came down to.”
The Brian West connection
Records provided by Burns showed that $7,000 in PAC contributions came from two South Florida developers with ties to Palm Bay developer Brian West, who was arrested that same year after the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said he tried to bribe members of the Palm Bay city council.
An informant told FDLE investigators West had indicated Burns was part of the alleged plan and the PAC money was intended to be funneled toward councilmembers, according to West’s arrest affidavit.
West has pleaded not guilty in the criminal case, which is still making its way through the courts. An attorney for West said in an email to FLORIDA TODAY that West was “100% innocent of these charges.”
“He has created more than 10,000 jobs in our state, has had no criminal history, and wouldn’t engage in criminal conduct — especially buying votes,” attorney Barbara Kibbey wrote.
Burns has maintained he had never been asked to pay any bribes. The money was for political ads in a town council race in Martin County in which West had an interest, he said.
Burns’ involvement in that race, in which he said West hired him to consult for the incumbent mayor of Indiantown, a small town about 16 miles southwest of Stuart, has landed him in further trouble.
Among several ad buys for that race, Burns funded a Facebook ad which was mocked up to seem like it had come from the mayor’s challenger and was shot through with racist undertones, featuring a confederate flag and phrases like “Heritage matters” and “It’s time to take our town back.”
FEC investigators said the ad was deceptive and may have swayed enough voters in the largely Hispanic and Black community to swing the election, running afoul of a rarely used election statute that prohibits “corruptly influencing voters.” The incumbent mayor, who was Black, won by just 27 votes, or about 3% of the vote, records show.
Burns downplayed the accusation – a possible third-degree felony – saying he felt the ad was no more deceptive than other political advertising. He said he had cribbed the text directly from the challenger’s Facebook page, which he said was scrubbed soon after.
“My intent wasn’t to be deceptive,” Burns said. “I ran that one ad basically showing the statement that the guy made so that people could see it, now that it was deleted.”
The challenger, Indiantown builder Guy Parker, told FLORIDA TODAY he had never said or posted the words featured in the ad.
“He flat-out lied,” Parker said of Burns, adding that he was raised in New York and had no reason to support the confederate flag. He said he held no racist views. “That’s the farthest thing from me,” Parker said.
There was “no question” the advertisement impacted the outcome of the race, he said.
Burns spent some PAC money at the card table
Burns also faces multiple counts related to overspending on the PAC account, often while the balance was already in the negative, which includes the failed September transactions.
In at least two instances, bank records show the account was overdrawn in part because Burns either directly spent or withdrew thousands of PAC dollars at casinos and card clubs outside Brevard.
Altogether, nearly $7,000 of the $20,000 the PAC raised were spent or withdrawn at gambling houses, including the Best Bet Casino in Jacksonville, the Daytona Beach Racing and Card Club and the Orange City Racing and Card Club in Volusia County, according to the statements.
Burns did not deny that he spent at least some of the PAC money gambling, but denied he stole the funds. The money was his personal fee for campaign and consulting work related to Adkins’ primary run and his role in the Indiantown race, he said.
“I get paid for my services, right? I’m not doing it for free,” Burns said.
Burns’ largest contributor, Orlando-area developer Thomas McNamara, told FLORIDA TODAY there had been no agreement that Burns would take a cut from a $10,000 donation he made to Friends of Florida in May 2020 to support Adkins’ State House run. Close to $6,000 that Burns spent or withdrew came out of McNamara’s contribution, records show.
“As far as I know, it was all to be spent on Marcie’s campaign,” McNamara said. “I had no conversations about anything else.”
McNamara said he had no idea Burns wasn’t filing the finance reports and was “disappointed” to learn how the money had been spent.
Adkins’ finance records show she had paid Burns about $33,000 directly to his consulting business, the Relentless Group, for “consulting services” throughout the campaign. Adkins did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
While the FEC so far hasn’t charged Burns over the expenditures, those could put him at risk of further violations.
“Florida law says that a political committee may only make expenditures intended to influence the outcome of an election,” elections attorney Meyer said.
“It defies logic (to think) that gambling or even large expenditures at a casino for other purposes are … going to meet that requirement.”
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