Ford says she'll look into paying fee
By LEONORA LaPETER
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 17, 2001
ST. PETERSBURG -- Mayoral candidate Kathleen Ford said Friday she would see whether her campaign could pay for a $1,000 state election fee that she originally swore in an affidavit that she couldn't afford.
Ford, standing at the corner of 62nd Avenue and Fourth Street N during afternoon rush hour holding a campaign sign and waving, said she didn't realize she could use campaign dollars to pay the fee. She has raised $19,230 toward her campaign as of Jan. 31.
"At the time I signed that, it was an undue burden," said Ford, continuing to smile and wave at honking cars. "I think I had $300 in my checking account. But I didn't know I could pay it with my campaign finances. It could be a mistake, and the campaign could pay for it."
Ford stopped short of pledging to pay the fee. Instead, she said she would talk it over with campaign workers and decide later whether she could pay.
Ford and her husband, attorney Harvey Ford, live in a home she valued at $275,000 in the Old Northeast, have a child in private school and own stocks valued at more than $20,000.
But Ford said she and her husband have separate checking accounts even though they file joint tax returns. An attorney, she has let her practice lapse while concentrating on her job as a City Council member representing District 4. The part-time job pays $23,337, which Ford said is not nearly enough for her to afford the $1,000 fee.
She said not much of her declared $100,000 net worth is cash.
"If we liquidate the family silver or sell the house, we'll have money," Ford said. "But in my household, I'm responsible for paying my bills and my husband is responsible for his."
In most municipal political races, candidates are asked to pay two fees. The first, a qualifying fee, is automatically waived if the candidate gathers enough petition signatures to get on the ballot. Ford qualified using signatures.
The second fee, typically 1 percent of the salary for the office sought, goes to the state Election Commission and is used to pay for investigations into campaign finance abuses. It can be waived if a candidate declares it is an "undue burden" in a sworn affidavit. The more money raised from candidates for the commission -- a nine-member volunteer board with a staff of 13 -- the less that has to come from taxpayers.
But it's actually up to Ford as to whether she can pay the fee. State law does not provide any guidelines for who should and shouldn't pay the fee, said Phyllis Hampton, general counsel for the Florida Elections Commission.
"What's an undue burden to one person might be not be an undue burden to another," Hampton said. "If the Legislature wants to come in and establish standards, they could do it but they haven't seen fit to do that."
So what's to stop a wealthy person from taking advantage of a system run by the honor code?
Elections officials said it's the news media.
"If a rich person uses it, I guess the theory is that the media will ask this person why they filed an affidavit and couldn't meet the burden," said Clay Roberts, director of the state Division of Elections.
Ford was one of four mayoral candidates who filed the affidavit of undue burden. Also filing were Louis Miceli, a factory worker, Patrick Bailey, a collection agency owner, and Maria Scruggs Weston, a hospital worker.
Three people seeking the $100,000-a-year mayor's job have net worths in excess of $1-million. All three, Karl Nurse, owner of a printing company, Larry Williams, owner of a diagnostic imaging company, and Rick Baker, an attorney, paid the $1,000 fee.
Omali Yeshitela, who has a net worth of $68,000, also paid the fee. Yeshitela, a self-employed educational consultant, said he never considered waiving the fee.
"I was thinking perhaps we should take up a fund for her at the next forum," Yeshitela joked. Then, getting serious, he said: "I didn't understand it, particularly from someone who prides herself for being in the forefront of public interest. I didn't understand why she didn't pay it; I didn't understand it at all."
Ford said she would meet with her campaign committee and see whether there was money to pay the fee.
"We want to do what's right, and if my campaign wants to pay for that, I'm okay with that," Ford said. "Obviously we want to do what's right, and my concern is following the law."
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