How Val Demings Helped a Campaign Donor Fund a Major Real Estate Purchase With Taxpayer Dollars

Upon joining Congress, Florida Dem began renting a top donor's newly purchased office suite

Rep. Val Demings / AP
October 6, 2022

In December 2016, a political operative and loyal Val Demings campaign donor purchased a pair of office suites for $500,000. Within days, Demings began paying that donor taxpayer funds to rent the suites—payments that now total hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Longtime utility and telecom company political operative Julia Johnson gave thousands of dollars to Demings prior to the Democrat's successful 2016 congressional campaign, according to campaign finance disclosures. Just weeks after Demings's win, Johnson on December 29, 2016, purchased two units in an Orlando business complex for $500,000, local property records reviewed by the Washington Free Beacon show. Within days, Demings's official office began paying Johnson's LLC more than $5,300 a month to rent the two suites, which were combined into one office space. Demings's lease with Johnson began on Jan. 3, 2017—the same day Demings was sworn into Congress—and the Democrat is still paying her campaign donor for the space as of January. In total, Demings's office has paid Johnson nearly $320,000 since 2017, allowing the donor to pay for much of her real estate purchase with taxpayer dollars.

Nearly six years after Demings's first payment to Johnson, the Democrat is running to unseat Florida Republican senator Marco Rubio, who Demings says "fights for his donors" over everyday Floridians. The race has seen Demings face an array of ethics issues—in April, for example, Demings opted to attend a House Judiciary Committee meeting remotely so she could simultaneously participate in a campaign call. "Of course I've been looking so forward to being with the Duval Caucus, and here I am stuck in a markup in Judiciary so I apologize for the background noise, but of course I am also listening to the hearing there, so I know when it is time for me to vote," Demings said during the virtual campaign event. House rules require members to separate their official and campaign business.

Demings's arrangement with Johnson could also violate House ethics rules, which require district office leases to be "entered into … as the result of a bona fide, arms-length, marketplace transaction" between two sides that "are not relatives nor have had, or continue to have, a professional or legal relationship." Demings in 2017 spoke at an event for Politic365, a now-defunct media site whose domain was first registered by Johnson's consulting firm. Johnson's stepdaughter, meanwhile, served as editor in chief of the site. In July 2012—just two months after Johnson's first contribution to Demings's campaign—Politic365 said Demings "may be [the] #1 House candidate in [the] country," adding that the Democrat "may have the most compelling personal history of any candidate in the country."

Demings did not return a request for comment. Johnson could not be reached for comment. According to Demings's House disbursements, the Democrat pays "2295 S Hiawassee LLC" $5,319.75 a month for "district office rent." Florida business records list Johnson as the LLC's president and managing member—on those records, Johnson uses the same mailing address as her consulting firm, Net Communications. Just three months after Demings began paying Johnson for the donor's Orlando office space, Johnson gave Demings another $2,700. Johnson contributed to Demings's campaign again in 2019 and twice in 2020.

Beyond her status as Demings's campaign donor and landlord, Johnson was implicated in a high-profile bribery scandal through her role as a FirstEnergy board member. During Johnson's time on the board, the energy company paid roughly $60 million to a nonprofit group controlled by former speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives Larry Householder, who passed a bill to bail out several bankrupt FirstEnergy plants. Those payments occurred between March 2017 and March 2020—Johnson joined FirstEnergy's board in 2011 and became chair of its "Corporate Governance and Corporate Responsibility" committee, which controls the company's political activity, in May 2019. Johnson left the board this year as part of a settlement agreement stemming from the bribery scheme. The company gave Demings $2,000 during Johnson's time on the board.

While Johnson has yet to contribute to Demings's campaign as the energy operative manages the fallout from the bribery scandal, the Democratic Senate hopeful is not hurting for cash. Demings has raised $48 million to Rubio's $37 million as of Aug. 3, though Rubio has a $6.2 million cash-on-hand advantage. The pair will face off in November.