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    Charities rake in war chest wealth

    After the elections' furor has passed, many candidates are giving their leftover funds to non-profit organizations.

    By ROBERT FARLEY and LISA GREENE

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 22, 2000


    PALM HARBOR -- Amid a sea of chads and a storm of controversy, at least a few good things happened because of this year's elections.

    The Citizens Alliance for Progress in Tarpon Springs is $2,500 richer. East Lake Community Library has an extra $10,000. The Oldsmar Little League got $10,000.

    They're among the local non-profit groups that received donations from political candidates who had leftover campaign funds and decided to give the money away instead of returning it to contributors.

    The biggest donor among county officials and North Pinellas legislators was state Sen. Jack Latvala. Latvala raised a lot of money, first as he considered a bid for secretary of state, then because he expected an opponent. But he wound up running unopposed for re-election to the District 19 Senate seat. And that left him with $200,000.

    Latvala decided to spread the money around, mostly to local charities and non-profits. The biggest winner was the Greenwood Community Health Center in Clearwater, which got $20,000.

    Latvala's wife, Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala, presented the check to the Greenwood Community Health Center at the center's annual fundraising banquet on Oct. 27.

    "I thought he might give us a couple of dollars," said Willa Carson, the founder and president of the board of directors at the Greenwood Community Health Center. "But this was a real surprise."

    The money will come in handy, Carson said, as the center opens its new facility at 105 N Greenwood Ave. on Jan. 7. The money will be used, in part, to pay for staffing to keep the center open five days a week instead of the three days it is open now. The clinic provides medical teatment to those who cannot afford it. Doctors donate their time to work there. Other services include free blood-pressure and cholesterol screenings and flu shots.

    The next largest of Latvala's donations included $10,000 each to the Oldsmar Little League and East Lake Community Library and $8,500 to the Safety Harbor Museum.

    "I tried to distribute it pretty evenly throughout the district," Latvala said. He said he decided against returning it to contributors partly because most of his campaign funds came from lobbyists and political action committees outside the district and he wanted to keep the money local.

    State candidates who faced opposition had far less in surplus funds.

    State Rep. Larry Crow, who ran against Democrat Sue Humphreys in District 49, had only about $30 left at the end of the election, said campaign manager Leona Tangell.

    Gus Bilirakis, a Republican from Palm Harbor, was left with $4,000 after winning state House District 48. So far, he has given $1,000 to Highland Lakes Elementary School and $500 to a North Pinellas pregnancy center. He plans to distribute the rest to Palm Harbor Middle School, the Palm Harbor Senior Activity Center and other groups.

    Ava VanNahmen said being able to donate to charity is some consolation for losing her bid for House District 50 to Republican Kim Berfield of Clearwater. VanNahmen, a Democrat from the Feather Sound area, said she'll have about $1,000 to donate, although she hasn't decided yet which group to give the money to.

    Susan Latvala donated about $4,700 to various groups. Her donations went to groups such asa hospice, the American Cancer Society and the Pinellas County Environmental Foundation.

    "I've never had the good fortune of having leftover funds before," Susan Latvala said. "I just thought it would be a good thing to do."

    Once the election is over, state law allows candidates to buy thank-you ads, close their campaign offices and repay loans. Then they can return a share of the leftover funds to their contributors or donate the money to non-profit groups, a political party or the county's general fund.

    Commissioner Karen Seel donated about $900 to five groups, including the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and the Junior League of Clearwater and Dunedin.

    The losing candidates in Seel's and Latvala's races reported that the money they spent after the election went to campaign expenses or loan repayments.

    Seel and Latvala were elected in September. Candidates elected in November, including commissioners Bob Stewart, John Morroni and Ken Welch, have until February to file their final campaign spending reports.

    Welch said he'll have about $1,000 to donate to the Urban League.

    "To me, that's the best use of the money," Welch said. "It's giving back to the community."

    Morroni said he had $400 left, which he donated to his son's elementary school.

    "I've always found it more useful to give it to the school than the party," he said. "The party will continue to raise money. The school always seems to be a little short."

    Unlike state candidates, federal legislators can hang on to their election surplus for the next election.

    U.S. Rep. Mike Bilirakis ended up with a huge surplus after his successful race against Reform Party candidate Jon Duffey.

    Bilirakis' press secretary Christy Stefadouros said Bilirakis plans to donate "a substantial amount" to local charities in the coming months, but he has not yet decided how much to distribute or who will get it.

    Federal election records show that Bilirakis also funneled a great deal of his contributions, about $134,000, to other Republican candidates and to the Republican Party.

    - Staff writer Katherine Gazella contributed to this report.

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