Former operative faces fines

By Times Staff
Published June 14, 2006

EX-POLITICAL OPERATOR CHARGED: The Florida Elections Commission has found probable cause to charge a Democratic former St. Petersburg political operative with 40 counts of election law violations. Peter Schorsch, who created a now defunct political committee called Take Back Tampa Bay and a Web site (www. fedupwithfarkas.com) bashing state Rep. Frank Farkas, R-St. Petersburg, potentially faces fines of more than $60,000.

A state investigator pursuing a complaint by Farkas (for whom Schorsch worked early in his career) concluded that Schorsch certified false campaign reports showing no political activity, accepted illegally large contributions ($5,000 from trial lawyer Larry Beltz), failed to report contributions and spent money without adequate funds in the committee's account.

Schorsch responded on the St. Petersburg Times' online political site, The buzz (www.sptimes.com/blogs/buzz): "My political career has long been over. I haven't, and will not, sign for the certified letter about this matter. I won't be going to any hearing and I don't care about the final disposition. The FEC will levy a civil fine and that will go unpaid until the day I win the lottery. Cheers!''

He has 30 days to decide whether he wants a hearing before the elections commission or an administrative judge or whether he wants to reach a settlement. His political consulting career ended late last year amid bad check charges and allegations that he stiffed clients.


VEEP VISIT?: The buzz among Tampa Bay Republican insiders is that Vice President Dick Cheney may be coming to Tampa in late July to help raise money for the congressional campaign of state Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Tarpon Springs.

The Bilirakis campaign says it would be thrilled to have the vice president's help, despite his low poll ratings, but stressed that nothing has been finalized or confirmed yet. Bilirakis is getting plenty of other high profile help to succeed his father, Mike Bilirakis, in Congress.

"Gus has worked hard as your state representative and now he will work even harder to serve you in the United States Congress. Smart and direct like his father, Gus Bilirakis is a natural-born leader who cherishes his community,'' former New York Mayor Rudy Giuiliani says in a fundraising letter for Bilirakis.


HELLER GETS PARTY BACKING: Politicians are often wary of taking sides in primaries, but that's certainly not the case in the Democratic primary to succeed state Rep. Farkas in House District 52.

When former University of South Florida St. Petersburg CEO Bill Heller jumped into the race challenging Liz McCallum for the Democratic nomination, he brought with him endorsements from most of Pinellas County's elected Democrats.

The Heller endorsers include:State Reps. Charlie Justice and Frank Peterman; Pinellas County Commissioner Calvin Harris; St. Petersburg City Council members James Bennett, Rick Kriseman, and Rene Flowers (council member Leslie Curran too, but she's a registered Republican); and School Board member Linda Lerner.

Among the conspicuous Democrats missing from the list were County Commissioner Ken Welch, who has to stay neutral because he's on the county canvassing board, and St. Petersburg City Council member Earnest Williams who said he wanted to stay on the sidelines: "We'll see what happens after the primary and then we'll go from there,'' Williams said.


MYSTERY POLL RAISES QUESTIONS: Sandra McKenna respects phone solicitors. Everyone has to have a job, she says.

So on a recent Saturday, the Palm Harbor woman agreed to a phone survey about the state House District 48 election. The primary is Sept. 5 and the election in November.

The questions started generally, listing the four Republican candidates and asking McKenna if she felt favorably or unfavorably toward them.

Then she said the questions turned odd:

Would the fact that a candidate worked for Gus Bilirakis affect the way she would vote?

If the race was an all-female contest, would that change her opinion?

What if she knew that a candidate went on a junket to Las Vegas?

And finally, which candidate is she going to vote for?

"I said, 'What is your name and who are you calling for? This sounds to me like you're trying to lead voters,' and he hung up," McKenna said.

The choice of questions raises the issue whether this was a "push poll," a survey designed not to measure voters' opinions, but to influence them by asking leading, negative questions.

McKenna contacted former Safety Harbor City Commissioner Robin Borland, the race's only female candidate, and told her of the survey.

Borland, who worked as an aide for congressional candidate and outgoing state Rep. Gus Bilirakis in 2004, said she doesn't know who was conducting the poll.

Borland also said she went to Las Vegas in 2000 for her husband's birthday and had such a bad time, she swore she would never go back.

If it was a push poll, none of the other Republicans in the race are taking ownership.

Palm Harbor fire commissioner and Republican candidate Ken Peluso said a neighbor also called him to say she had received a call asking about the Republicans in the race.

"She just stated it was obvious it was a political poll," Peluso said.

Peluso said he doesn't know who is doing the polling but says it's not him.

He added that he's never been to Vegas, but does play the card game Uno with his kids.

Pinellas County Housing Authority chairman Brian Flaherty, also a Republican candidate, said he was in Las Vegas last January, speaking before members of the Public Housing Agency Directors Association.

Flaherty said he hasn't done any polling and hasn't heard of one being done.

"It sounds strange," he said.

Tarpon Springs city commissioner and Republican candidate Peter F. Nehr said he knows nothing about the survey and won't be doing any polling until at least Aug. 1. He also said he has never been to Vegas. "Why would I give anybody the benefit of knowing who is up against me?" he said.


NO RESPECT: Democrat Norm Roche, who is seeking Calvin Harris' District 2 County Commission seat, says his opponent appears reluctant to debate.

Roche claims Harris has declined offers by Democratic clubs looking to host sit-downs between the two candidates and pointed specifically to Harris' decision not to show at a Tarpon Springs Democratic Club event next month.

Roche stops short of charging that Harris is ducking him, but says his opponent's behavior is like that of many incumbents who refuse to engage challengers. "It goes back to that entitlement thing," he said "'How dare you run against me?'"

Harris says he's skipping the Tarpon Springs event because he'll be out of town and that Roche's criticism is baloney. He'll talk to anybody anytime, he said, but won't go out of his way or ignore work to do so.

"I'm not going to run all up and down the county and engage him in rhetoric," Harris said. "And I'm working. I have a full-time job. I can't spend all of my time entertaining him."

Times Staff Writers Tamara El-Khoury, Adam C. Smith and Will Van Sant contributed to this week's Political Junkie.