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South Pasadena resident files elections complaint against Lisa Wheeler-Brown

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

A South Pasadena resident has filed an official complaint with the Florida Elections Commission alleging a flurry of election law violations against St. Pete City Council candidate Lisa Wheeler-Brown.

In the complaint acquired by SaintPetersblog, James Donelon accuses Wheeler-Brown of violating at least three sections of Florida’s election law, including use of campaign funds, accuracy of reports and petty cash funds allowed.

Donelon wrote that Wheeler-Brown used campaign funds for “unlawful living expenses,” certified numerous campaign finance reports, may have violated petty cash limits and reporting requirements and may have accepted in-kind contributions from a nonprofit organization.

At issue are a series of reports that emerged last month showing Wheeler-Brown had used $500 in campaign funds to undergo personal dental work and failed to report the expense for more than six months. Instead, campaign finance reports initially listed a $500 expense for office space to Advantage Village Academy.

Once the change was made to remove the office space expense and replace it with the dental work as a “photo shoot” expense, it was revealed that Wheeler-Brown’s campaign had actually been using space at the school, a nonprofit organization, for free. That constitutes an in-kind contribution.

The campaign failed to report the contribution until it was uncovered by SaintPetersblog. But it is illegal under federal tax laws for a nonprofit organization to contribute to political campaigns through either monetary or in-kind contributions.

When the campaign was asked about the illegal contributions, they filed yet another amendment to the finance reports reflecting the in-kind contributions for office space as having originated not from Advantage Village Academy, but instead Parker Financial Services.

Parker Financial Services is headed by Toriano Parker, the same person who heads Advantage Village Academy. However, the address in question is the academy itself.

Donelon highlights the entire fiasco, complete with dates and citations from SaintPetersblog reports, in his six-page report. And Donelon offers several questions for the FEC to consider.

Donelon points out that the expense for dental work may have stemmed from a petty cash withdrawal.

“It does not appear normal that a dental procedure cost exactly $500,” Donelon wrote. “Did Brown or her campaign treasurer instead withdraw cash? If so, a $500 cash withdrawal would run afoul of Florida Statutes 106.12(2)(b) and 106.12(3a) regarding petty cash funds allowed.”

Campaigns are not allowed to withdraw more than $100 a week for petty cash.

But the complaint doesn’t stop there. Donelon asks, if the dental procedure wasn’t exactly $500 as the updated reports indicate, what happened to the rest of the money?

“Unfortunately, unless the Florida Elections Commission opts to inspect the campaign’s bank records, we will never know,” Donelon wrote.

Furthering his case for an FEC investigation, Donelon also highlights a handful of other campaign amendments to contributions and expenditures, including the removal of a $500 contribution from Shirely Wheeler, the candidate’s mother and campaign treasurer, and replacing it with a contribution from Smith & Associates.

“Certainly the treasurer … and the candidate … would be aware if the treasurer did not donate $500 to the campaign,” Donelon wrote.

He also pointed to Wheeler-Brown and Wheeler’s checkered past. Wheeler-Brown pled guilty in 1990 to retail theft and in 1998 to writing a worthless check. Wheeler has a felony conviction on her record for Grand Theft.

The news comes as Election Day looms just a few weeks down the road. Many voters have already received mail ballots.

It’s not likely the complaint will have any legal ramifications prior to the November 3 election. What would happen as a result of an investigation with negative findings isn’t entirely clear. Some election law violations come with possible jail terms, while others are simply fined.

Either way, with just a few weeks left in the campaign, the news can’t help Wheeler-Brown’s case for getting elected to the District 7 seat. She’s running against retired firefighter and current union leader Will Newton.

The most negative news to hit Newton’s campaign came earlier this month when the Tampa Bay Times reported that Newton had once had more than $30,000 in back taxes owed to the IRS. Newton paid off that debt in 2012.

The two aim to succeed Newton’s brother, Wengay Newton, who is term-limited out of office this year.

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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