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Election 2004

Wooten says flier's fraud claim untrue

The ad, mailed by a builder political group, lauds the commission chairman's work. His rival calls it misleading.

By JUSTIN GEORGE
Published October 23, 2004

PRESIDENTIAL RACE
Voter drives flood rolls
Protesters shadow Bush at fundraiser
Political imagery gets wild in TV ads
Clinton comeback, good for Kerry?

AT A GLANCE
Bush Kerry

POLITICS 2004
Lucy Morgan column: Vicious attack ads obscure vital issues in campaign home-stretch
Hillsborough: Lost votes should oust official, opponent says
Tampa Bay: Students complain of false party swap
State: Bradley, a third Senate candidate, for 'veterans and common man'
The nation: Ballot battles rise in the courts
Pasco: Returns look good for early voting plan
Citrus: Wooten says flier's fraud claim untrue

CAMPAIGN CALENDAR

TODAY: Hip Hop Summit Action Network Bus Tour 2 p.m., Tropicana Stadium Parking Lot, 1 Tropicana Drive. Headliners will include rap artists Akon and Styllion; ESPN sportscaster and former New York Jet Walter Briggs; Tampa Bay Bucs player Ellis Wyms; and Southern Style rappers Evening Riders, Ace Boon Koon, Black Jack Boys, Kream, and LK & Tom G. Shuttles will transport young voters to early voting locations until 5 p.m. Call 866-0873.

TUESDAY: Meg Ryan and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. 6 p.m. , Tampa Theater, 711 Franklin St., Tampa. A discussion on President Bush's environmental policies. Free. Call 595-7314.

WEDNESDAY: Parent Forum on the Pinellas County School Referendum Ballot Question 7 p.m., McMullen-Booth Elementary School, 3025 Union St., Clearwater. Call (813) 884-3782.

A widely distributed brochure mailed by a builder-fronted political committee claims County Commission Chairman Josh Wooten "took steps to end abuse and fraud within the county."

But Wooten's political opponent, a sitting commissioner and even Wooten himself say no such abuse or fraud ever occurred.

"Did I miss something over the years?" Joyce Valentino, who is running against Wooten for the District 5 seat, said Friday. "It's misleading. I think it's just very misleading."

The double-sided two-page glossy color mailer arrived in county mailboxes this week. The size of a sheet of paper, the ad has drawn scrutiny and rebukes from at least one county commissioner, whose seat is not up for election. Commissioner Gary Bartell said the ad slanders the work of county employees and unfairly damages public trust in government.

Wooten, who is the subject of the ad, even said the "fraud and abuse" statements within it are misleading. He said his campaign had nothing to do with the ad's creation or distribution.

"Who's watching out for YOUR pocketbook?" the ad states in its opening statement, which displays the picture of a hand thumbing dollars in a wallet.

The answer, above Wooten's picture, awaits inside:

"Commissioner JOSH WOOTEN is good for OUR pocketbooks! "When it comes to keeping government lean and efficient, no one has worked harder than Commissioner Josh Wooten," the ad goes on to say. "Josh led the fight to eliminate government waste. He took steps to end abuse and fraud within the county so the budget process is open and accountable to Citrus citizens."

The ad repeats the "eliminating waste, fraud and abuse in government claim" three times.

The ad was created by a political committee known as Citizens for a Better Citrus, which is headed by two officials from the Citrus County Builders Association. Association director Linda Daly of Daly & Zilch is chairwoman. Association treasurer Gaston Hall of Hall Brothers of Citrus County is also treasurer of the committee. (He has personally donated $50 to Wooten's campaign, campaign finance records show.)

Contributors to the committee do not have to be divulged until a state deadline that falls four days before the Nov. 2 general election, and no other principals in the group are known.

Committees such as Citizens for a Better Citrus are formed under a state law that allows "electioneering ads," which are paid for by interest groups trying to influence election outcomes.

According to MaryAnn Quinn-Williams, chief deputy of the Citrus County Supervisor of Elections Office, the group has filed all necessary paperwork required to form. It can support or oppose any candidate or issues that members choose to, she added, according to state statutes.

When asked about the "fraud and abuse" claims made by the group's flier, Daly said, her group is just pointing out that Wooten is a proactive commissioner.

"What we meant by that comment is Josh Wooten has done a good job of preventing waste, fraud and abuse in the budget," Daly said. "We're not accusing anyone of fraud or anything."

But the ad said Wooten "took steps to end abuse and fraud," implying that it had taken place. Asked if the statement was misprinted, Daly said, "I don't think it's worded wrong at all."

Bartell said no such fraud or abuse ever happened. He read those words and checked with the county administrator, budget director and attorney, among others, to see if there was an incident he had forgotten.

"As a board member for 14 years," Bartell said, "I have never heard of or seen evidence of any type of fraud or anything in county government.

"My biggest concern is that the entire board has worked to put public trust back into county government, and I think it's unfortunate that this group is bringing allegations of abuse and fraud against the county without cause ... I had a number of citizens calling me as soon as it hit the mailboxes wanting to know: "What fraud and what had been covered up.'

"And from the get-go, that is absolutely unfair to all the people who have worked so hard in county government."

Daly said Bartell misinterpreted the statement. But even Wooten, who said he hadn't seen the ad, said the statement is wrong.

"I think fraud would be misleading," he said. "The way I scrutinize the budget, I do scrutinize it for any waste, and I have cut out things I have thought is wasteful. But I haven't found anything for fraud and abuse."

He said he supports Citizens for a Better Citrus, though it is not affiliated with his campaign.

"I have great respect for Linda Daly," Wooten said. "She's just aces in my book, so I do support them, as long as they're being accurate and positive."

The advertisement was Citizens for a Better Citrus' second ad endorsing Wooten, who Daly said is being promoted because of his work keeping the county property millage rate the same for four years.

The first ad, titled "Commissioner Josh Wooten deserves our thanks," also included a misrepresentation. It said Wooten was "Holding the Line on Taxes" above a pictured Employer's Quarterly Federal Tax Return form - taxes the County Commission has nothing to do with.

Valentino said she feels the same businesses and developers are seeking to undermine her.

"They don't want to lose that seat," she said. "It's the builders. I don't know which builders, which Realtors and which developers are on this commission, but that's where it's coming from."

Justin George can be reached at 352 860-7309 or jgeorge@sptimes.com

[Last modified October 23, 2004, 01:13:23]

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