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Former running mates at odds over money

By PETER WALLSTEN

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 22, 1998


TALLAHASSEE -- Mary Unger spent $1,500 on suits and shoes and $174 to color and coif her hair, all in preparation for the big announcement:

More Campaign 98 from the Times.

Share your opinions on Florida's governor race in our special forum.

She would run for lieutenant governor of Florida on a dark horse Republican ticket challenging Jeb Bush.

But the announcement never came.

Now Unger, a 36-year-old Sarasota businesswoman, is at war with her former running mate, Elizabeth Cuevas-Neunder.

What began as a historic pairing of two women seeking Florida's highest offices has disintegrated into a mass of conspiracy theories, accusations of extortion and perjury, legal threats and a police complaint. Not to mention Unger's demands for reimbursement for the clothes, the hairdo and thousands of dollars in other campaign expenses.

Unger's total bill for a partnership that lasted less than 36 hours: $6,661.19.

"I think it should be featured somewhere in a comedy routine rather than the realistic world," said Richard Dombro, the deputy treasurer of the defunct campaign. "If we can all maintain our sense of humor, maybe we can live through this."

Cuevas-Neunder, 44, a Sarasota cable television talk show host and frequent school board critic, had been planning since May to run for governor. She raised no money and had no staff but was first in line July 13 to qualify for the ballot.

She paid the $6,657.72 filing fee, but was told by elections officials she could not fully qualify until she selected a running mate. The running mate's filing fee would cost another $6,377.40.

Cuevas-Neunder, 44, drove home that night and began her search for a running mate. The chief qualification: She wanted a woman.

Dombro narrowed the field to four women that he knew in the community. On Wednesday, Cuevas-Neunder met Unger, who, with her husband, owns a company called International Barter Exchange, which allows, for example, a lawyer and an accountant to swap professional services. Excited about the prospect of running for office, Unger agreed to join the ticket.

Unger's first task was to switch her party affiliation from Democrat to Republican.

Last Thursday, one day before the qualifying deadline, Cuevas-Neunder announced that she had a "secret weapon" to help her beat Bush.

"Never before in the history of Republican Party politics nor in American politics has a woman candidate named another woman to be her running mate," proclaimed the press release.

This, the campaign figured, would draw even national media to the formal announcement, planned for 11 a.m. Friday.

Meanwhile, back in Sarasota, Unger and Cuevas-Neunder were preparing. Unger shopped for a red suit to match her partner's. She bought three silk suits. She got her hair and nails done.

"This was going to be the big nationwide story," Unger said. "I needed to look my best when I went to Tallahassee to present myself as lieutenant governor."

Unger's husband, Ron, also was excited. He and his brother, Rich, hired a political consultant. They picked out an address for an proposed Internet site (www.liz?.com), printed buttons and bumper stickers. They got a portrait studio to photograph the team. The Ungers said they were told the campaign had $22,000 in the bank.

"We're thinking we're going to make a difference," Mary Unger said.

By Thursday night, things weren't going so well.

Jean Gongaware, the Ungers' consultant, said she could not get Cuevas-Neunder to explain her positions on issues. Gongaware heard a disturbing rumor, that Cuevas-Neunder thought she could get a political appointment should Bush get elected, which Cuevas-Neunder and the Bush camp deny.

Meanwhile, the Ungers said, they were told a fund-raiser was to be hosted by the governor of Puerto Rico, but no such event was ever scheduled.

Following a late-night meeting Thursday, Gongaware pulled Unger aside and told her to forget the whole thing. Unger agreed.

That was the end of the historic team.

But it was just the start of the bickering.

This week, the Ungers sent Cuevas-Neunder an invoice and a threat to sue if it isn't paid.

Cuevas-Neunder is fighting back. She says she never authorized the expenditures and accuses the Ungers and Gongaware of unfair accusations. The Ungers maintain they spent the money with Cuevas-Neunder's full knowledge.

"I don't want anything to do with these people," Cuevas-Neunder said. "These people are sick. They are not getting this money."

Her campaign treasurer is suspicious. "I haven't gotten the first receipt from any of these ludicrous bills," Dombro said.

Cuevas-Neunder has spent a lot of time on the telephone this week trying to figure out what happened. She has faxed the Ungers a seven-page letter attacking them for dropping out and denying their accusations.

On Tuesday, she faxed Ron Unger a note accusing him of stealing some of her personal mail connected to the campaign. "Any more misbehavior on you or your family's part will be dealt with at the state attorney's office and charges will be filed," she wrote. An additional faxed message called for an investigation and accused the Ungers of extortion, political campaign fraud and perjury.

The Ungers met with a Sarasota police lieutenant for two hours Tuesday to file a harassment complaint against Cuevas-Neunder. The police advised them to handle the dispute in civil court. Gongaware said Cuevas-Neunder has called her dozens of times to harass her -- a charge Cuevas-Neunder denies.

"I never should have worked for a Republican," said Gongaware, who said she worked for Democrats in Pennsylvania before moving to Florida last year. "It serves me right."


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