Another elections complaint has been filed associated with the Lisa Wheeler-Brown campaign. This time the complaint is not directly targeted at Wheeler-Brown and instead at a campaign consultant and his PAC, the Florida Voters Fund.
James Donelon, the same South Pasadena resident who filed a complaint against Wheeler-Brown alleging a slew of campaign finance violations, is requesting the Florida Elections Commission investigate Tom Alte of Blue Ticket Consulting and his relationship between both the campaign and the Florida Voters Fund.
At issue are two campaign mailers that were produced and paid for by the Florida Voters Fund. One in particular attacked Wheeler-Brown’s opponent for the District 7 City Council seat, Will Newton.
The mailer showed both Newton and his brother, incumbent Wengay Newton, as bobble head dolls and criticized them for saying “no” to important city projects. The mailer told voters to “say no” to them.
Donelon argues in his complaint that because the mailer issues a call to reject a candidate for office it does not qualify under Florida law as “electioneering communication.”
“The text on the mailer stating, ‘Say NO to the Negative Newton Brothers’ is the functional equivalent to stating that voters should “reject” them,” Donelon wrote. “It expressly advocates defeat of candidates and it’s (sic) advocacy against Wengay Newton is too far in advance of the election to qualify for electioneering.”
Wengay Newton is leaving City Council due to term limits, but is seeking a State House seat instead. That election isn’t until next year. Electioneering communication must be done within 30 days of a Primary Election or 60 days of a General Election.
According to Florida State Statute 106.011 section (8)a, electioneering communication includes mailers, but they can specifically mention a candidate but must do so “without expressly advocating the election or defeat of a candidate.”
Where the complaint is up for interpretation lies in the second part of that sentence. The communication can be “susceptible of no reasonable interpretation other than an appeal to vote for or against a specific candidate.”
Certainly the message to voters in that mailer was clear – don’t vote for Will Newton. But it didn’t specifically say that. It said to “tell” him ‘no.’
And that’s where complaints like these get tricky. Donelon’s complaint is well-researched and accurately states Florida laws. But it’s up to the Elections Commission to determine whether or not his interpretation is valid.
Donelon also argues the mailers should be considered an in-kind contribution. But that would violate state law on maximum contributions. The Florida Voters Fund had already donated the maximum amount under Florida law, $1,000, in both the Primary and General Elections.
And Donelon takes particular care in pointing out that Alte is affiliated with both the Florida Voters Fund and the Wheeler-Brown campaign.
The complaint references a Facebook post in which Alte refers to Wheeler-Brown as “our candidate.” Alte’s fiancé, Meagan Salisbury, is the campaign manager overseeing the campaign.
However, Alte calls the allegations baseless. According to him, the mailers produced and paid for by his PAC were vetted by an attorney, Johnny Bardine, before being authorized. Bardine gave the green light after determining there were no potential violations.
Instead Alte calls the allegations a waste of taxpayer funds in an attempt to yet again smear Wheeler-Brown’s campaign.
While the complaint was filed by an individual unaffiliated with the Newton campaign, Alte said he thinks the campaign pushed the issue and found someone willing to put their name on anything. Donelon filed complaints against City Council member Darden Rice when she ran for office two years ago. Those allegations were dismissed.
The reference to Alte’s Facebook post linking to a Tampa Bay Times article about Newton’s former tax lien is possible evidence of some sort of collaboration. Alte said he is not Facebook friends with Donelon and his profile is private. That means it’s unlikely Donelon would have seen that post and was instead, likely tipped off by the Newton campaign or someone closely affiliated with it.
Newton’s campaign responded to that allegation.
“Why do they believe every complaint against their campaign is our doing or, for that matter, still another reason to complain about us rather than mind their own campaign better? This is not our doing, nor do we have any further comment. We have enough to do without responding to all their complaints,” said Newton’s campaign manager Steve Lapinski.
But Alte maintains there is plenty of reason to believe they were pulling the strings behind the scenes.
“Will Newton’s campaign, his advisors, and supporters have been bragging about how they would file this complaint for weeks. It’s complete political theater and a waste of taxpayer money,” Alte said. “But Will Newton has never had a problem abusing the system when it benefits him, so we’re not surprised.”
The outcome of this complaint and the one previously filed against Wheeler-Brown won’t be determined until after the election. If any allegations are found to be true, those accused would likely face fines.