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Crist ally cuts ties amid grand jury investigation

The prominent GOP fundraiser says it's in the candidate's best interest to end his support.

Published July 27, 2006

TALLAHASSEE - A prominent Republican fundraiser who is the subject of a federal grand jury investigation in Miami has abruptly discontinued his support of Attorney General Charlie Crist's campaign for governor.

Sergio Pino, a Miami real estate developer and builder, wrote Crist a letter saying "it would be in your campaign's best interest" for him to end his fundraising support for the leading Republican candidate for governor.

A federal grand jury in Miami is investigating Pino and a Miami-Dade County commissioner, Jose "Pepe" Diaz.

South Florida newspapers have reported that the investigation centers on a fishing trip Diaz took to Cancun in 2004 aboard Pino's private jet. A few months later, Diaz and the rest of the commission voted in favor of a Pino development project called Grand Bay.

Crist said he didn't ask Pino to step aside. "He volunteered to do it," Crist said, "but I also think it was the right thing to do."

In a separate matter, the Miami Daily Business Review reported last week that it had obtained corporate bank records showing that Pino's companies may have reimbursed $29,500 to 59 contributors to Gov. Jeb Bush's 2002 re-election campaign. It is a violation of Florida election laws for a person to make a donation in another person's name.

Bush has said his campaign did nothing wrong.

In a letter to Crist dated July 23, Pino said he was "honored to have supported your campaign," and told Crist he looked forward to offering his "active support of your campaign in the near future."

Pino, 50, of Coral Gables, started as a plumber in Miami in 1977 and is now president of Century Partners Group, a Miami real estate development firm. He is a Bush-Cheney "Ranger" for having raised at least $200,000 for the president's 2004 re-election campaign, and he is a major donor to Gov. Bush's nonprofit educational foundation.

Pino has given the maximum $500 contribution to Crist's campaign, and Pino-controlled firms have given at least $5,500 more, according to campaign finance records.

The Pino letter was dated two days after a spokeswoman for Crist's campaign said Pino's continued support was welcome.

The shift suggests the heightened sensitivity surrounding questions of ethics or possible election-law violations in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal and questionable donations to a previous congressional campaign of Rep. Katherine Harris, a Senate candidate.

Crist is the second gubernatorial candidate to face questions about the dealings of a prominent supporter. Earlier this month, Democrat Rod Smith was put on the defensive about his longtime friendship with Gainesville businessman Eddie Dugger, who has been implicated in a kickback scandal in the Florida prison system.

Smith's opponent in the Democratic primary, U.S. Rep. Jim Davis, made an issue of the Dugger contributions, but Crist's GOP opponent, Florida Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher, declined to comment on the Pino matter.

Crist disclosed the letter from Pino after he was asked Wednesday whether receiving substantial financial support from a person who is under investigation could be a liability to his campaign.

Asked what precipitated Pino's letter, Crist said: "What you saw this past weekend," referring to news reports about Pino's problems.

He said he did not plan to return any of Pino's contributions. "There's nothing as yet that I'm aware of" concerning the investigation, Crist said.

Pino has been a generous contributor to Gov. Jeb Bush's charitable group formed to promote his recently revived education think tank, the Foundation for Florida's Future.

The foundation's Web site shows two Pino-controlled companies donated $130,000 to the Bush foundation. The money came from Century Home Builders and Century Home Builders of South Florida.

[Last modified July 27, 2006, 01:31:40]

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