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Campaign contribution tale is a study in contradictions

Published November 30, 2003

The Florida Elections Commission staff isn't buying the excuses offered by Pasco Republican Executive Committee officers.

Gee, you mean there might be some other explanation besides naivete, volunteerism and innocent oversights as to why the party failed to disclose publicly its largest contributions and expenditures of the 2002 campaign season?

Sure. Try conspiracy and incompetence.

It will be up to the nine Elections Commission members to decide which. On Nov. 12, the commission voted 6-0, with three absent, to find probable cause against the Pasco Republicans.

Specifically, Treasurer Scott Factor and former Chairman Hugh Townsend are accused of three counts of failing to report campaign contributions and a single charge of failing to report a campaign expenditure.

The allegations stem from a Times story in February that detailed how the party didn't disclose three $2,500 contributions from families of judicial candidates to cover the unreported expense of a $7,339 mailer to registered Republicans in advance of the September 2002 election. The flier touted the Pasco Republican Party's endorsement of five circuit judge candidates. It was the first time the Pasco GOP became heavily involved in judicial campaigns, one of which included successful candidate John Renke III, the son of Pasco's GOP state committeeman John Renke II.

Factor blamed his own "absentmindedness" for the failed disclosures even though he and Townsend signed the report that carries the disclaimer "It is a first-degree misdemeanor for any person to falsify a public record. I certify that I have examined this report and it is true, correct and complete."

Townsend said he didn't notice the missing contributions or expenditure even though he took credit for soliciting the donations.

The charges aren't petty. Florida law allows for $1,000 fines on each count, plus civil penalties equal to three times the amount involved in the illegal act. At $2,500 per unreported contribution and $7,339 for the undocumented expenditure, Pasco Republicans face potential fines of nearly $50,000.

The Elections Commission found insufficient evidence to substantiate a fifth allegation that the party accepted the contributions earmarked for use benefitting specific candidates. That is illegal, and the party could have been required to return the donations if the charge had been confirmed.

The contributors, Judith Braak, aunt of now Circuit Judge John Renke III; Lisa Cesta, sister of candidate Robert "Bo" Michael; and Barbara Stephens, mother-in-law of candidate George Brown, all told the Elections Commission they were "not aware that other family members of judicial candidates had also made contributions in the same amount or that it would be used for a specific purpose," according to the statement of findings.

Well, at least they got their stories straight. Too bad, it contradicts previous statements

Earlier this year, Townsend told the Times he and other party officials solicited the money and told the contributors the donations would be used primarily for the mailer.

Townsend offered his own revisionist history. In his written response to the Elections Commission, the former party chairman said he was not aware political parties were prohibited from accepting contributions for certain candidates.

"In his affidavit, (Townsend) stated that even though he was not aware of "any laws about accepting donations,' he did not accept earmarked contributions due to past experiences (outside of politics) with people demanding certain things when they contribute to something specific. Since the chairman said he wished to avoid this, he did not accept any contributions that were to be used for a certain candidate," according to the statement of findings.

Even though the Elections Commission can't prove intent, it doesn't mean staffers are swallowing this it's-all-one-big-coincidence theory put forth by Townsend and the candidates' families.

"While Ms. Stephens, Ms. Braak and Ms. Cesta may have given the contributions to (Pasco Republican Executive Committee) with the understanding that the contributions would be used for their three relatives, there is insufficient evidence to substantiate this allegation," the report states.

The family members get a pass, but not the party officers. They will contest the charges, said Renke II, who is acting as the local party's attorney. His son the judge already is required to answer allegations about his campaign tactics before the Judicial Qualifications Commission.

Explaining political behavior in the 2002 judicial race is starting to become old hat for the Renke family.

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