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Jamie Bennett campaign accepted cash donations over legal limit — against my advice

in Peter/The Bay and the 'Burg by
Before you read the following article, remember there was a complete (self-imposed) firewall between me and Jamie Bennett’s campaign finances. So everything you are about to read is just another indication of Bennett’s incompetence. Also, I am on record as early as March 16 as recommending the campaign institute more advanced controls of his campaign finance record-keeping, as indicated by this email I sent to the campaign treasurer:

Bill:

Here is where you want to go to order Campaign Tool Box. Please make sure you order the Florida edition. It’s a hundred dollars more than I thought, but trust me, it will be well worth it.

Unfortunately for the Bennett campaign, it failed to take my advice then, to its detriment. The rest is from Cristina Silva:

Mayoral candidate Jamie Bennett collected multiple cash donations in excess of the state’s $50 contribution limit, according to campaign finance reports reviewed by the St. Petersburg Times.

When the city clerk brought the problem to his attention, Bennett quickly submitted an amended report that listed new amounts in compliance with state election laws.

But a month after he filed that amended report, Bennett acknowledged Friday he has yet to return the extra cash he shouldn’t have accepted in the first place.


“That wasn’t the way to do it,” said City Clerk Eva Andujar, who has suggested the campaign submit a second amended report. Along with the improper donations, both of Bennett’s reports were laced with spelling errors, incorrect addresses and missing information.

The campaign finance problem is the latest setback for Bennett’s mayoral effort, which has dealt in recent weeks with accusations of potential ethics and election law violations.

Bennett, who has tried to reassure voters he has done nothing wrong, said he sent a letter to contributors this week informing them of the mistakes. He also asked donors to verify his financial records so he can make any necessary reimbursements and corrections. His first campaign report listed a dozen donations above the cash limit, but it’s unclear whether they were actually cash or simply described incorrectly.

“We understand that there are errors in the report and we are doing everything we can to correct those errors as soon as possible,” said Bennett, a City Council member since 2001.

Bennett declined to discuss individual errors until after he filed a new report with all the correct information.

It is a misdemeanor to intentionally submit an inaccurate or incomplete finance report or to accept cash contributions in excess of $50, said Jennifer Davis, a spokeswoman for the Florida Division of Elections. The law allows non-cash donations of up to $500.

A complaint must be filed with the state attorney’s office or the elections office before the state can investigate.

Another mayoral candidate, Kathleen Ford, also accepted one cash contribution in excess of $50, according to her report. Notified of the error Thursday, Ford said she would likely submit an amended report next week.

Bennett is already facing multiple elections complaints, filed by a resident accusing him of giving away tickets to the city’s luxury suite at Tropicana Field in exchange for endorsements and donations.

Bennett fired his campaign manager, Peter Schorsch, after Schorsch distributed tickets to the city’s suite alongside campaign material.

Bennett has since hired a new manager and treasurer. But instead of the fresh start the campaign envisioned, Bennett’s new employees are now scrambling to organize their records.

Andujar said she notified Bennett of multiple errors on his handwritten finance report a day or two after the April 10 submission deadline.

The campaign hired neighborhood activist Tim Baker to input the data electronically. Baker found the campaign had incorrectly characterized some contributions made online as cash payments.

“I just typed in what they gave to me,” said Baker. “The totals might not have been right, but I didn’t amend anything.”

Bennett’s attorney suggested he send out a letter to at least a dozen supporters earlier this month asking that they verify their contribution amounts and contact information.

If he can’t sort out who donated what, Bennett said he will give any unclaimed contributions to the Pinellas Hope homeless shelter.

“We will check the authenticity of the donation, and if returning it is necessary, we will return (it) and then we will deal with the rest of it,” he said.

Bennett raised roughly $30,000, putting him third in fundraising in a field of nine mayoral candidates.

It’s unclear why his campaign had such a hard time keeping track of contributions.

Gallery owner Mike Shapiro said he donated a $100 check and $75 in cash. Bennett’s first finance report confirms this.

The amended finance report, however, states Shapiro gave a check for $175. But Shapiro said he was never contacted by the campaign about a reimbursement, and he does not remember writing a new check.

Other errors seem to reflect sloppy record keeping.

The first finance report states Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch donated $100 in cash. The amended report states Welch gave a $100 check.

“I didn’t give cash,” said Welch. “It was always a check.”

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.

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