Club tab a lose-lose deal for this candidate

He lost and now faces election violations.

By BILL COATS, Times Staff Writer
Published October 12, 2007

TAMPA - Frank Margarella used money from his Tampa City Council campaign this year to pay dues, buy meals and drinks and rent golf carts at Hunter's Green Country Club, according to a staff report of the Florida Elections Commission.

Such spending has led the Elections Commission to find probable cause that Margarella violated state elections laws in nine instances.

The New Tampa real estate agent, who lost his race to Joseph Caetano, could be fined a maximum of $14,428. But Margarella and Charles Finkel, general counsel to the commission, said they have been negotiating something much cheaper.

"My job is to prosecute, not persecute," Finkel said.

Margarella said he didn't intentionally violate any campaign rules. All the country club spending, including golf, was associated with recruiting campaign support, he said.

"I'm a business person, and I'm used to doing business over a lunch table and over a dinner table," Margarella said.

The Elections Commission investigation was triggered by a complaint filed in February by a Caetano supporter based on questionable expenditures listed in Margarella's campaign reports.

In a closed Aug. 16 meeting, the commission considered 27 violations identified by its staff. It dismissed four dealing with inaccurate record-keeping and three based on Margarella's payment of his cellular phone bill from campaign funds.

The phone was the published number for Margarella's campaign, but also for his real estate work.

Also dismissed were 10 staff allegations that Margarella authorized some $5,000 in campaign expenses while insufficient funds were in his account.

The commission sustained only one, a $1,809 electronic debit to the country club.

Those 10 dismissals may have saved Margarella a lot of fines.

While the commission's maximum penalty for each allegation is a $1,000 fine, bounced checks and other overdrafts can trigger extra fines equal to triple the amount that was overdrawn.

Margarella could seek a hearing in the case, but is negotiating instead.

"I've got to decide whether to take my poison, drop it and move on," he said.

Bill Coats can be reached at 813 269-5309 or coats@sptimes.com.