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Committee clears three in election case

Bank records show that the contributions given to two City Council members and a former council candidate were voided.

Published December 5, 2003

PORT RICHEY - The Florida Elections Commission has cleared two City Council members and a former council candidate of wrongdoing in a case involving campaign contributions from a casino boat operator.

During the 2001 election, Bill Bennett, Eloise Taylor and candidate Jim Priest were accused of accepting and not reporting $500 contributions from AMBAS Tours Inc, which was owned by the Kolokithases - the same family that runs the Paradise of Port Richey casino.

All three denied taking the money, and the elections commission last month found no probable cause that state law had been broken.

Priest, according to elections commission documents, told investigators that he was called by an AMBAS representative in March 2001 and told to pick up envelopes containing the checks.

Priest "said he took the contributions to Mr. Bennett and Ms. Taylor and that the three collectively decided to return the contributions because they did not want to appear to be "pro gambling,' " according to a summary of Priest's account. "He stated that he returned the three contribution checks to ATI."

The city, at the time, was embroiled in controversy over an ordinance that allowed the Kolokithas family to operate a bingo hall - an ordinance crafted with the help of a Kolokithas employee, former Mayor James Carter. The ordinance was overturned, and there has been talk of a lawsuit by the Kolokithases.

The $500 checks were later voided, according to bank records obtained by the elections commission.

Priest could not be reached Thursday. Bennett and Taylor said they were glad the matter was over. "As far as I'm concerned," Bennett said, "it's time to move on."

Beth Henson, who prepared the checks in her job as an assistant to Mollie Kolokithas, said she would ask her boss about the matter and get back to a Times reporter later Thursday. Henson did not call back.

In correspondance with the state, a lawyer for the Kolokithases said his clients would not return affidavits because an apparent state offer of "limited immunity" was never hashed out. "This is in no way admitting any wrongdoing by my clients," the lawyer wrote. "However, I can easily see how these issues could be misconstrued, thus placing my clients in a very unfavorable light."

[Last modified December 5, 2003, 01:34:13]

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