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South Florida senator faces huge campaign fine

A South Florida senator is fined $1,000 for each of 311 violations of the campaign finance law.

By LUCY MORGAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 8, 2001


A South Florida senator is fined $1,000 for each of 311 violations of the campaign finance law.

TALLAHASSEE -- For willfully and frequently violating state election laws, state Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla was fined a whopping $311,000 Wednesday by the Florida Elections Commission.

The fine is the highest the commission has ever imposed in a contested case.

Elections Commissioner Anne Jolley Thomas-Byrd said Diaz de la Portilla, a Miami Republican and member of a politically prominent South Florida family, had not been humbled by the accusations and "thumbed his nose at the commission."

Thomas-Byrd, a legislative lobbyist, led the move to impose the maximum fine recommended by the commission's lawyers -- $1,000 for each of 311 violations of the campaign finance law.

Diaz de la Portilla, 37, did not attend the commission meeting and did not return a reporter's telephone call.

His lawyer, Benedict Kuehne, said the campaign violations were unintentional mistakes by campaign workers. He called the fine "incredibly excessive and outrageous."

Diaz de la Portilla "has expressed regret for the unintended violations," Kuehne told reporters. He said Diaz de la Portilla will appeal to the 1st District Court of Appeal in an effort to overturn the fine.

A state hearing officer recommended a lower fine of $79,500 after determining that Diaz de la Portilla was guilty of recklessly disregarding campaign finance laws.

The senator, in a 1999 special election, accepted $10,000 in cash in violation of a law that forbids candidates from taking $100 or more in cash and failed to report more than $144,000 in other contributions and $68,000 in expenditures.

This was not his first brush with state elections law. In 1995, he paid a small fine for violations during a 1992 race for the state House -- but only after a judge issued a warrant for his arrest when he initially failed to pay $3,872.

Thomas-Byrd's motion to impose the higher fine was narrowly approved on a 4-3 vote. Chairman Susan MacManus, a professor at the University of South Florida, Jimmy Patronis Jr., a Panama City restaurant owner, and Sam Bell, a lobbyist and former Florida House member, voted with Thomas-Byrd.

The no votes came from commissioners who also lobby the Legislature -- Richard Heffley, David Rancourt and Michele Springer.

Rancourt, a former director of the state Division of Elections who now lobbies for a number of well-heeled Republican clients, questioned the move to go above the fine recommended by the hearing officer.

Commission member Courtney Cunningham, a Miami lawyer and lobbyist, excused himself from the case after Kuehne, Diaz de la Portilla's lawyer, accused him of being biased against the Diaz de la Portilla family.

Cunningham acknowledged that he doesn't like Diaz de la Portilla's brother, Miguel, a former Miami-Dade county commissioner, but said he even helped raise money for the senator's campaign.

The Diaz de la Portilla family has been active in South Florida politics since older members of the family fled Fidel Castro's Cuba. Another brother, Renier, replaced Alex in the House when he ran for the Senate in 1999.

After the commission vote, Cunningham accused Kuehne of attempting to intimidate members of the commission with his accusation of bias.

"You are an officer of the court, not a pimp for your client's paranoia," Cunningham said, promising to file a complaint against Kuehne with the Florida Bar.

If he loses on appeal, Diaz de la Portilla also faces the possibility of paying investigative costs totaling $67,000.

Only once in its history has the Elections Commission imposed a higher fine. That came in an uncontested case against V. Ted Brabham, a Texas lawyer convicted of bribery and other charges associated with an attempt to fix a state attorney's election in West Palm Beach. That fine, imposed in 1999, was $466,500.

Brabham spent five months in jail after a bribery conviction, gave up his license to practice law and did not challenge the Elections Commission charges.

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