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Unopposed local constitutional officers to return nearly $900,000 in contributions

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

The collecting began last year, and the contributions flowed into Tampa Bay incumbent constitutional officers focused winning this fall’s elections and keeping their jobs for four more years.

By last week, when qualifying ended, nearly a dozen had raked in close to $900,000, ready to wage war with challengers to their positions as sheriffs, tax collectors, clerks of the circuit court, supervisors of elections and school superintendents.

Turns out they don’t need that cash at all. Nine constitutional officers in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties are running unopposed in the election cycle this year, meaning they have won by default.

The donated money, they say, will go back to contributors, or if the donors wish, to local charities.

Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee accumulated the most of any of the Tampa Bay incumbent constitutional office holders, with a slew of $1,000 donations amounting to $372,840; certainly enough to scare off any and all would-be challengers.

Gee, unavailable for comment this week because he was vacationing out West, has indicated he will take into account the expenses of his campaign, which have amounted to just over $2,000, and return prorated donations to every contributor. That is, if they want the money back.

Letters have been sent to donors notifying them of this, said Larry McKinnon, a spokesman for the sheriff.

“Some don’t want it back,” McKinnon said. “They tell us to give it to a charity.”

He said some do accept the money, others take it and donate it themselves to nonprofits of their choices; others tell the sheriff to donate to a charity of his choosing.

The sheriff’s office operates a foundation that itself doles out money to more than two dozen local charities, and money from Gee’s campaign that ends up in the foundation would benefit those organizations, McKinnon said.

Two other unopposed constitutional officers in Hillsborough County also raised a good amount of re-election cash. Tax Collector Doug Belden pulled in $208,306, of which he already spent $16,356, and Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer raised $45,246, while spending just $750.

Latimer, who ran and won the seat in 2012, is relieved his campaigning is done, but now has to ready the office for the fall election. Vote-by-mail ballots must be completed, printed and sent out by July 15.

“It feels great,” he said of not having to run a campaign while running the elections office. “I think that it signifies that I’ve earned the trust of the community. What we do here is very important.”

He said he already has come up with a plan for his campaign donations.

“We’ll be returning them to the contributors,” he said, after figuring in the cost of his expenses.

Three constitutional officers in Pinellas County also are unopposed: Clerk of the Circuit Court Ken Burke, Tax Collector Charles Thomas and Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark.

Thomas raised the most, raking in $46,260 with Burke coming second with $35,604, and Clark, $11,500. Burke also spent the most, so far in the non-election, dumping $4,277 into his campaign, while Clark spent just $85.

In Pasco County, Sheriff Chris Nocco raised the most money, at $107,721, and he already has spent about half that amount, according to financial disclosures. Superintendent of Schools Kurt Browning raised $33,400 and spent nothing.

Brian Corley, Pasco County’s supervisor of elections, collected $5,320 in contributions and spent $3,360 on the campaign, and Tax Collector Mike Fasano raised $8,150 and reported no expenditures.

State law requires unopposed candidates to return campaign donations or turn them over to a charity within 90 days of becoming unchallenged and file a detailed report of where the money goes. But not all of it gets back to the giver.

The law says county office holders can take up to $20,000 and dump it into the coffers of the office to which they have been elected, for “legitimate expenses in connection with the candidate’s public office,” the statute says.

Up to $25,000 also may be turned over to the candidate’s political party, the law says.

With a 38-year career in journalism behind him, Keith Morelli now writes about medical marijuana and the politics of pot in Florida. He began his career as a news editor with a weekly paper in Zephyrhills and his last gig was with The Tampa Tribune, which folded unceremoniously in May. While there, Morelli was general assignment reporter for the Metro section, writing a wide variety of pieces ranging from obituaries, to crime, to red tide, panthers and city government. In between those jobs, he spent nine years as a bureau chief for the Ocala Star-Banner.

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