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    Sheriff accepts gift at government office

    An unsolicited check for Pinellas Sheriff Everett Rice's re-election campaign is sent to his office, raising questions of ethics.

    By LEANORA MINAI

    © St. Petersburg Times, published August 19, 2000


    Pinellas Sheriff Everett Rice acknowledged Friday that he had accepted a campaign donation through the Sheriff's Office mailroom, a possible violation of state campaign finance laws.

    Rice, seeking his fourth term, said it was an unsolicited check.

    "I'm going to write for an ethics opinion because this is a problem," he said.

    An attorney for the state Division of Elections said Friday that he advises candidates not to accept campaign-related material in public buildings.

    "I try to discourage it," said Bucky Mitchell, senior attorney.

    The law says no person shall make, solicit or knowingly accept contributions in a building owned by a government entity. The statute also says a candidate cannot use the service of any officer or employee of the state or county during working hours.

    This week, Rice acknowledged that his secretaries, Josephine Mattson and Claudia Patterson, take campaign telephone calls and keep his political calendar while working on county time.

    Rice said he always had told campaign volunteers not to refer calls to his secretaries, who are paid by the county.

    But callers to his campaign headquarters have been directed to the secretaries and given a Sheriff's Office telephone number. While he warned volunteers about referring callers to his office, Rice said Friday that his secretaries would continue to keep his political calendar.

    "If it's a commitment for my time, Josephine's the only one who can handle it or me direct," Rice said. "If I schedule something myself and it's campaign-related, I come in here and tell Jo to put it on my calendar."

    Mitchell of the state elections division said such a practice "certainly is cause for concern."

    "They're really not supposed to be using their employees for campaign-related purposes," Mitchell said. "That's a no-no."

    Election complaints are investigated by the Florida Elections Commission in Tallahassee. Currently, the commission is investigating 200 complaints, but investigators declined to say whether Rice is one of them.

    David Flagg, an investigator with the Elections Commission, said if he was a candidate and received a campaign donation through his public office, he would return it.

    However, Flagg said it is not a clear call because someone might not know what is inside the envelope.

    "The key thing would be if he's participating in some level where he's encouraging contributions," Flagg said.

    The chief of the sheriff's mailroom declined to answer questions Friday and transferred a telephone call to the media relations office.

    Rice said he can recall onlyone contribution, and he opened it in the office.

    "I can't stop it if someone puts a check in the mail," Rice said.

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