Rep. Jay Fant, R- Jacksonville. [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]
State Rep. Jay Fant, a Republican primary candidate for Florida Attorney General, won’t say where he got $750,000 he loaned his campaign last fall.
Financial disclosures the Jacksonville Republican has been required to file through 2016 don’t appear to show where that much cash could have come from.
Nonetheless, Fant has declined through a campaign spokeswoman to say where he obtained the money, saying only that it was "a personal loan." The campaign referred instead to the financial disclosure he’ll be required to file in June, suggesting it will answer the question.
Fant’s assets, particularly his home, could have grown in value since his last financial disclosure, which covered 2016, possibly providing more equity he could have borrowed against to obtain the money he loaned his campaign.
However, there is no record on the Duval County Clerk of Court’s web site of Fant having borrowed recently against any real estate he owns, and the campaign said he hasn’t done so.
Fant’s financial disclosures don’t show many large, liquid assets other than an IRA.
His wife, Lauren Lovett Fant comes from the Lovett family of Jacksonville that owned corporate interests estimated in the 1970s at $100 million, according to news reports, including the Piggly Wiggly chain of grocery stores.
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If Fant liquidated an asset the couple jointly owned, or borrowed money against such an asset, it would normally be legal for him to give or loan the proceeds to his campaign.
But it’s different, campaign finance experts say, if he received that asset or borrowed the money from anyone, including his wife, who provided it for the purpose of funding his campaign.
In that case, it would have to be reported as a campaign contribution from that individual or corporation – and it would far exceed the $3,000 contribution limit.
The $750,000 loan amounts to about three quarters of the $1,014,875 Fant’s campaign had raised as of the end of February, according to state campaign finance records.
He had raised another $245,450 in an independent political committee.
Reps. Frank White of Pensacola and Ross Spano of Dover, plus former judge Ashley Moody of Plant City, are competing with Fant for the Republican nomination for attorney general in a campaign that has already turned hostile.
Fant, Spano and White have sought to portray Moody as a liberal and questioned her commitment to gun rights, while Fant and White have both sought to portray themselves as the most committed conservative candidates in the race.
Moody, however, leads the field in money raised from sources other than candidate loans or contributions, and in endorsements from the law enforcement community.
Two Democrats, Rep. Sean Shaw and consumer financial lawyer Ryan Torrens, both of Tampa, are also running.
Fant comes from a banking family. His grandfather founded the once-prosperous First Guaranty Bank and Trust, at one time Jacksonville’s oldest bank.
But the bank failed in 2012. Fant took over as its chairman and CEO in 2003. The failure cost the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. $82 million.
State regulators said under Fant’s leadership, the bank engaged in poor lending practices including a rapid increase in loan portfolios, risky loans and too many loans to individual clients, some of which it said violated banking regulations.
Bank examiners blamed the bank’s board of directors, headed by Fant.
"The bank’s financial deterioration is a direct result of poor loan underwriting and a lack of sound lending department controls," state bank examiners wrote in 2009. "The board and executive management are responsible for the resulting deterioration as they failed to institute sound policies and procedures and appropriately oversee credit practices."
That 2009 report also said Fant accepted the blame.
"Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Julian E. Fant III acknowledged the board’s responsibility for the condition of the bank. … Chairman Fant acknowledged that in hindsight he did not appreciate the gravity of the concerns raised in prior examinations," it said.
Contacted for this story, however, Fant blamed "government overreach."
"During the Great Recession, we saw more than 64 banks closed in Florida after the federal government decided to bail out the big banks," he said via email. "We fought hard to stay in business, but ultimately, government overreach made it impossible."
The campaign backed up Fant’s contention with a comment from Linda Charity, a former top banking regulator in Florida, who said in an interview, "This bank failed like so many small banks because of the economic downturn and the real estate crisis. People just walked away from their loans."
Charity, who now advises financial institutions on policy and government regulations for a Tallahassee law and lobbying firm, said she has no relationship with Fant or his campaign, although she has known the Fant family for years. She offered her comments to the campaign in response to a conversation with Fant, she said.
Banking expert Ben Bishop Jr. of Jacksonville’s Allen C. Ewing & Co. investment banking firm said he believed the bank’s problems stemmed from aggressive venture into commercial real estate lending, a new line of business for the bank, in the mid-2000’s.
"I’m not sure it was mismanagement – I’d call it a mistake by the board," he said. "They were going into a business that was new to them and made mistakes, and their timing was terrible" – just before the real estate crash.
Despite the bank’s failure, Fant heavily subsidized his first campaign for the state House two years later, in 2014.
He loaned his 2014 campaign $374,650 out of $647,593 it spent, even though his financial disclosure for the year 2013 shows no income and a net worth of $794,750, including a $548,000 IRA.
Fant’s disclosures for 2014-2016 continued to show little income other than his legislative pay, which totaled $62,834 for all three years.
Fant has listed his occupation as "chairman of a corporation" and "small business owner."
But his only income besides his legislative pay for the period 2013-16 was $10,000 in 2016 from a company called Caroline Family Office, the company of which he’s chairman, headquartered at his home address.
The campaign described it as a "fiduciary services" firm and wouldn’t describe its business further or say who its clients are. Fant has reported owning a 1 percent share of the company, saying that share was worth $250,000.
The term "family office" usually refers to a company that manages the investments of a wealthy individual or family.
On his financial disclosure for 2016, Fant lists assets including joint ownership of his home in an upscale waterfront neighborhood in Jacksonville, valued at $2 million, but with a $1.2 million mortgage; a $580,000 IRA; a joint investment account with his wife valued at $249,000; $50,000 in a joint checking account; his interest in Caroline Family Office; and a company called Gadsden LLC, valued at $400,000.
The campaign said Gadsden LLC is a real estate company and wouldn’t provide details on its business or assets.
The Fant campaign declined to say whether Fant’s wife was the source of money for his 2014 campaign or his current campaign or if so, whether she knew it was intended to go into the campaigns.
Through February, his campaign had spent an amount equal to most of the outside money he has raised, leaving comparatively little cash besides his loan proceeds — $236,871 in spending compared to $264,875 in outside money raised.
His independent committee had spent $228,611 out of $245,450 raised.