$20,000 contribution draws elections complaint against Elliott Stern in Pinellas School Board race

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A 49-page complaint has been lodged with the Florida Election Commission against Pinellas School Board candidate Elliott Stern’s campaign and an Electioneering Communications Organization (ECO) the Stern campaign is accused of enlisting to promote Stern’s candidacy.

The complaint alleges that Stern’s campaign treasurer, Jean Giles-Wittner, wrote a $20,000 personal check to fund advocacy advertisements on Stern’s behalf.

According to the complaint, a mailing was sent by Florida First, an Electioneering Communication Organization registered with the Florida Division of Elections. The mailing included a large photo with the words “Elliott Stern for Pinellas County School Board” and three references to the Elliott Stern campaign website, which includes language directing the voter to vote for Stern.

Now, keep in mind, electioneering communication organizations are given a lot of latitude, but one thing they can not do is directly advocate for a candidate’s election.

The complaint contends that the ECO broke Florida election law by listing Stern’s website and the language “Elliott Stern for Pinellas County School Board.” In addition, the complaint argues that the ECO engaged in “political advertisement,” rather than “electioneering communication,” activity that the ECO is not permitted to do. The claim is made that the disclaimer was therefore incorrect, and the mailer was effectively an in-kind contribution which exceeded the legal limit. Finally, it is argued that the Stern campaign obviously knew about the ECO’s in-kind contribution, yet failed to report it on its own campaign finance reports.

Reached by telephone for comment, Stern said he was unaware of the FEC complaint or the third-party activities that prompted it.

The use of shadowy third-party groups for mailing purposes is not uncommon, but it is usually done by shuffling money around between organizations. It is rare that a candidate’s own treasurer writes a personal check.

Complicating matters is that, according to the exhibits included with the complaint, Stern’s financial disclosures indicate that he receives income from one of his treasurer’s companies listed at the address from where the $20,000 check originated.

Stern faces incumbent school board member Janet Clark, retired college professor Jim Jackson and small business owner Shelly Ladd-Gilbert in the Pinellas County School Board District 1 race.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.