Clothing buys raise questions

A County Commission hopeful's use of campaign funds may violate election laws, experts say.

Published August 9, 2006

TAMPA - Robbins Consulting can't be found in the phone book. It has no address, occupational license or corporate listing in Florida.

Nonetheless, County Commission candidate Kevin White has paid thousands of dollars from his campaign funds to Robbins Consulting in the last two years, according to his treasurer's reports. What he got for that money was not political advice but a snazzy wardrobe: imported $500 Italian suits, tailored slacks, dress shirts and stylish ties.

"Robbins is my fashion consultant, which provides me a fashionable wardrobe so that I can make a good impression during the campaign," White explained. "I don't see anything wrong with it because I'm using the items as I'm campaigning."

Elections experts, however, say White's use of campaign money for his wardrobe, and his failure to clearly define expenditures to his clothier on campaign statements, may run afoul of Florida's election code.

"My experience with election laws would lead me to conclude that the Florida Elections Commission would have a problem both with the expenditure of campaign funds for these clothes as well as the listing of the clothier as a consultant," said Mark Herron, a veteran elections law lawyer in Tallahassee.

White is a former Tampa police officer and current City Council member seeking the Democratic nomination for the District 3 seat on the Hillsborough County Commission. In his campaign reports, he lists three expenditures to Robbins Consulting totaling $6,100. In each case, the purpose of the expenditure is "consulting."

Robbins, the St. Petersburg Times found, is actually Robert Ulysses Robins with just one b, a clothier who runs a small store called BC Men's Wear at 1903 E Hillsborough Ave. It is Robins who has received all the campaign money from White.

"I've been dressing Kevin since he was in high school," Robins said last week. "He came in earlier this year and bought six imported suits at $500 apiece and 10 pairs of pants at $125 apiece."

While he said he considers himself a fashion consultant, Robins said he knew nothing about any Robbins Consulting.

When White wrote two $2,000 checks from his campaign account for the suits and slacks a few months ago, he wrote them out to "Robert Robbins or Robbins Consulting."

White said Robins asked for the checks to be made out that way.

Robins says he doesn't recall making that request.

Either way, said Herron, the elections law attorney, White's handling of the wardrobe purchases may skirt election laws.

Florida law generally says acceptable personal expenses for a candidate are confined to travel, lodging and meals. The Florida Elections Commission helps determine if other expenditures are legal.

In a 2000 case, Herron represented Bay County prosecutor Jim Appleman, who was accused of, among other things, using campaign money to buy personal wearing apparel. In Appleman's case, he was able to demonstrate the need to replace clothing worn in an arduous rural campaign, and he also showed the clothing was for campaign purposes by donating it to charity after his election.

"If you're going to take the stance that it's for your campaign," Herron said, "then you should not be using it for everyday activities."

Herron said he found more troubling White's vague listing of his clothier as a consultant on his treasurer's report.

"On campaign reports, you are supposed to list the correct vendor who sold the goods or services, the correct address and what was actually purchased with campaign money," Herron said.

None of that criteria was satisfied by White's reports. That goes for the address listed for Robbins Consulting. The address White listed was not the store where the clothing was bought, but Robins' home address, a property at 4206 N 29th St., which Robins deeded last year to a relative with a different last name.

"The Florida Elections Commission always asks, 'Will a member of the public be able to understand from the campaign report what the expenditure is for?' " said Herron. "If the answer is no, there may be a problem."

Victor DiMaio, a political consultant for White, said he had researched the wardrobe issue and believed it was a legal expense.

Other local candidates, including two who regularly buy their clothing from Robins' BC Men's Wear, said they'd never dream of using campaign money to buy personal clothing.

"Oh, no, I've never done that," said County Commissioner Thomas Scott. "That's the first time I've ever heard of that.

"I think that's really stretching it. When someone contributes to a campaign, they're thinking it's for yard signs and advertisements and commercials and things like that."

Les Miller, a Tampa state senator now seeking a congressional seat, echoes Scott's sentiment.

"Oh, no, no," said Miller. "I've never done that.

"I've known Robert (Robins) for a long time. I've bought suits and ties from him. Never out of my campaign account. Out of my own pocket."

White, who is director of security for Rooms to Go, has amassed $150,004 in contributions and made $71,616.48 in expenditures to date, easily outdistancing the other candidates seeking the District 3 commission seat.

In the Democratic primary, White faces Chloe Coney, a former executive with the nonprofit Corporation to Develop Communities of Tampa, and Dorothy "Nicolle" Admire, a social worker. The winner of the primary will face insurance agent and Republican Kenneth Anthony in the general election.

Staff Writer Bill Varian contributed to this report. Jeff Testerman can be reached at (813) 226-3422 or testerman@sptimes.com.