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  • Democrats' money took unusual route

    By HOWARD TROXLER, Times Political Editor
    ©St. Petersburg Times, published August 28, 1997

    The Florida Democratic Party put money through county chapters to pay, with as little fanfare as possible, a $15,000 bonus to its then-embattled executive director.

    The revelation led Wednesday to a flurry of phone calls, letters and inquiries among top party officers who said they knew nothing about it.

    Under the plan, the party gave some contributors' checks directly to county-level organizations. That money, in turn, was paid to the executive director as consulting fees, records show.

    The practice came to light last week after the St. Petersburg Times reported on the party's handling of a $2,500 check from the Rev. Henry J. Lyons of St. Petersburg.

    Terrie Brady, state Democratic chairwoman, said Wednesday the explanation is simple and proper:

    Executive director Scott Falmlen was due a $15,000 bonus under his contract, but had been at the center of political controversy. She had hoped to fulfill the party's obligation while avoiding unnecessary flak.

    "Under the circumstances and the climate, I felt this was the best way to pay an employee what was due him," Brady said in an interview. Falmlen had taken much of the heat for the anonymous telephone calls to senior citizens made in the 1994 campaign of Gov. Lawton Chiles.

    Brady noted that the county parties properly reported the checks as contributions and duly reported their payments to Falmlen in the public record.

    A lawyer for the state Division of Elections also said the transfers, on their face, appeared to comply with state law requiring the reporting of contributions and expenditures.

    But the method of paying Falmlen came as a surprise to some Democratic Party officers. Some said they were disturbed that money intended for the state party did not get there and that the matter had not been discussed among the party leadership.

    The state vice chairman and treasurer said Wednesday they had not known of the method of paying Falmlen. The party's budget and finance committee held a conference call Wednesday evening to discuss the matter.

    "If I wrote a check to a Florida Democratic fund-raiser," vice chairman Jon Ausman of Tallahassee said in an interview, "I would expect the check to go to the Florida Democratic Party."

    Ausman -- who during the phone-call controversy had called for Falmlen's firing -- said he talked to Brady about the matter Wednesday. He said he wished she had brought the problem to the full party leadership.

    "She should have come to us," Ausman said, "and said: "Listen. Whatever you think about what is going on, we have a contract, and we should pay it.' "

    Also on Wednesday, the Pinellas County Democratic Executive Committee sent a letter to Brady asking for more information. The Pinellas party had hosted the June 1996 dinner for which Lyons wrote his $2,500 check, and it received a percentage of the proceeds.

    Paul W. Hitchens and Myrtle Smith Carroll, two Pinellas members of the state party committee, asked in their letter why Lyons' check went to Duval County, how many other checks were not deposited in the state account, and whether the $11,000 the Pinellas party received was the correct amount.

    Hitchens characterized the letter simply as a request for clarification. "We aren't on hostile terms, we all like Terrie," Hitchens said. "I don't know why it was done this way. I'm sure there is some reason for it."

    Brady had not received the Pinellas letter Wednesday evening but promised a prompt answer. "Frankly, they should ask those questions," she said. "We hope to give them the answers they need. Everything is recorded. Everything is above-board."

    Both Brady and Falmlen, contacted on vacation in California, said that Pinellas had received the correct sum.

    Brady said Wednesday the party has refunded the Lyons check, which was drawn on an account of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc. The convention is a tax-exempt organization that is not allowed to make political contributions.

    Instead of depositing Lyons' check in its own account, the state party turned it over to its Duval County branch, of which Brady also is chairman. Two weeks later, the Duval party wrote a $2,500 check back to Falmlen personally.

    Another donor's check for $5,000 went to the Polk County branch of the party, which wrote a check for the same amount to Falmlen. In all, Falmlen's contract called for a bonus of $15,000; a search of county party records confirmed at least $14,000 in payments.

    Falmlen was hired as the party's executive director in the spring of 1995, receiving a salary of $60,000. At the time, he was a special assistant to the governor. Falmlen said he had to give up his state retirement benefits to take the party job. Both he and Brady said the $15,000 bonus in his contract was compensation for that loss. Falmlen referred questions about the payment method to Brady.

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