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A third of those tasked with selecting the University of West Florida’s next president have personally contributed thousands of dollars to the past political campaigns of finalist Don Gaetz and/or his son Matt.

State campaign finance records show that least 10 members of UWF’s Board of Trustees and Presidential Search Committee have made contributions to Gaetz campaigns over the past 11 years.

The elder Gaetz is one of 19 finalists vying to become UWF’s next president. Current president Judy Bense, who has served since 2008, said last year that she would retire at the end of 2016. A 20-member search committee will interview finalists later this month before recommending three names to the university’s 13-member Board of Trustees, which is slated to make the final decision in mid-September.

While Gaetz submitted his name for consideration just hours before a Monday deadline, he’s been rumored for months to be the frontrunner to succeed Bense.

Records show Board of Trustees chairman Lewis Bear Jr. made $500 contributions to Don Gaetz’s state senate campaigns in 2005 and 2011, and to Matt Gaetz’s state house campaign in 2009. Bear’s wife Belle, son Lewis Bear III, and other Bear family members and companies have also contributed about $6,000 to Gaetz campaigns since 2005.

Collier Merrill, a search committee member and a past Board of Trustees chairman, gave $500 to Don Gaetz’s campaign in 2012 and another $500 to Matt Gaetz in 2013. Merrill’s two brothers have also made contributions, as have their Merrill Land Company and Great Southern Restaurant Group.

Reached for comment Friday, Merrill said the university did not require him to sign a conflict of interest disclosure. As a member of the search committee, Merrill said he felt insulted that anyone would believe he would give preference to Gaetz or any other finalist just because he had contributed to past political campaigns.

“I think Don Gaetz has done a fantastic job as a representative for Northwest Florida,” said Merrill. “We need to get the most qualified person who can get in that job as president. If that’s a conflict that we contributed to his campaigns, that’s ludicrous.” 

Merrill added that he feels the role of UWF president should be to secure funding for the university. “I do feel the president’s role needs to be bringing in money,” he said. “Someone like Don who has a proven track record would be great, I think.”

The political ties, however, don’t end with the Merrill or Bear families. Gulf Power executive Bentina Terry, who is a member of both the search committee as well as the Board of Trustees, made similar $500 contributions to Gaetz campaigns in 2012 and 2013, while her husband made a contribution in 2012.

Search committee member Steve Riggs has given about $3,500 to Gaetz campaigns since 2005, and his companies Affable, Inc. and Bear Lake Aviation have given an additional $1,500. Other search committee members who have donated to Gaetz campaigns include C. Wayne Ansley (and his wife) and Pamela Dana. The wife of Jay Patel, who is a member of both the search committee and the Board of Trustees, also made a contribution to Don Gaetz’s campaign in 2012.

Board of Trustees members Dick Baker, Greg Britton, David Cleveland, and Robert Jones have also contributed to Gaetz campaigns.

It’s not clear from the board’s conflict of interests policy whether or not trustees will be required to disclose the political contributions, but regardless, they wouldn’t be required to abstain from voting.

“A Trustee is not prohibited from voting on any matter,” reads the policy. “However, a Trustee voting on a matter which will affect the Trustee or his or her business interests or associate(s), other interests or relatives, shall disclose the nature of his or her interest in a public record in a memorandum filed with the Secretary, who shall incorporate the memorandum in the minutes of the Board meeting.”

University officials said Thursday that trustees are also subject to the state’s Code of Ethics for Public Officers and Employees. There are no formal policies adopted by the presidential search committee, officials said.

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