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Lisa Wheeler-Brown fails to report in-kind contributions for office space

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

City Council candidate Lisa Wheeler-Brown utilized office space in a nonprofit St. Pete facility to meet with campaign staff and supporters every Thursday for about four months but did not disclose this as an in-kind contribution on official campaign reports.

This is a clear-cut violation of campaign finance laws, Stetson University’s Dr. Wayne T. Bailey, a political science professor at its Deland campus.

According to state election law, candidates must report  “the total sums of all loans, in-kind contributions, and other receipts by or for such committee or candidate during the reporting period. The reporting forms shall be designed to elicit separate totals for in-kind contributions, loans, and other receipts.”

The issue arose when an amendment was filed to a February campaign treasurer’s report claiming $500 had been spent on office space at Advantage Village Academy in Midtown St. Pete. The expense was deleted and replaced with a $500 expense to Modern Day Smiles for a “photo shoot expense.”

Advantage Village Academy head Toriano Parker confirmed no cash had ever exchanged hands between his organization and the Wheeler-Brown campaign, but that they had used the facility to meet weekly for at least four months.

This is the latest in revelations about the Wheeler-Brown campaign that are threatening what was a leading campaign based on the most recent polling.

Questions also emerged about a dental procedure Wheeler-Brown underwent using campaign funds and why it took more than six months for the nonexistent office space expense to be corrected to reflect that $500 had actually been spent on dental work.

Bailey said he’s never heard of anyone using campaign funds for dental work. He compared it to dipping into campaign coffers to heal a broken foot.

“If you’re willing to stretch it that far, you could have any expense,” Bailey said, referencing other examples like having a gallbladder removed because the ailment was interfering with campaign activities. “I’m fairly certain the legislative intent does not reach that far.”

According to campaign manager Meagan Salisbury, Wheeler-Brown suffered a cracked tooth the day before a photo shoot with other campaign events scheduled. The procedure was necessary, she argued, to ensure Wheeler-Brown maintained a professional appearance.

Salisbury compared it to having hair or makeup done for a campaign-related photo shoot, which is a regular campaign practice, especially for female candidates.

Famously, former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin came under fire after $150,000 of clothing and accessories were purchased for her and her family during the 2008 campaign. However, the items were paid for through committees, not the McCain campaign fund. Had they been funded through McCain’s coffers, Palin would have had to declare them on her taxes as income.

That’s a whole ‘nother can of worms, said Bailey.

Bailey said he considered the expense a “living expense,” which is prohibited under campaign finance laws.

And that’s not the only problem surfacing from this revelation. The $500 dental expense had been listed for more than six months as a payment for office space to Advantage Village Academy in Wheeler-Brown’s Midtown neighborhood.

The problem is, there was never any other reference to that nonprofit organization in campaign finance documents throughout Wheeler-Brown’s campaign. Salisbury called it a clerical mistake and said she made the correction as soon as she noticed it.

Though only speculative, it begs the question as to how such a clerical error could occur. Bailey actually called the scope of time between the initial report and the time at which the error was made “even more provable” than whether or not the dental expense was allowable under state election laws.

Bailey called the issue a case potentially more appropriate for the “court of public opinion” because the state’s election commission would only be charged with investigating the campaign funding usages and reporting if someone files a grievance. And even then, their ruling would be a up for interpretation.

“I think the election commission would find probable cause to investigate that,” Bailey said. “There is a level of suspicion to have a presumption of abuse.”

However, Bailey pointed out, “these kinds of issues are very difficult to wrap up on a resolution.”

Wheeler-Brown faces Will Newton for the St. Pete City Council District 7 race on November 3. Mail ballots go out this week. The Newton campaign has not responded to the recent allegations.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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