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Thursday, Apr 26, 2018
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Official complaints now part of campaign toolbox

It’s the latest weapon in the fight to win the governor’s seat: Don’t like something your opponent did? File a complaint with a state agency.

At least eight ethics- and elections-law complaints have been filed in the past four months, mostly by campaign surrogates.

The latest came Thursday from Jeff Marano, president of the Broward County Police Benevolent Association, against Republican Gov. Rick Scott. His group recently hosted a fundraiser for Democratic challenger Charlie Crist.

Marano says Scott broke elections law by inviting uniformed, on-duty law enforcement officers to campaign events in Tampa on June 16 and July 7.

Marano, a retired 30-year veteran of the Hollywood Police Department, filed the confidential complaint with the Florida Elections Commission. It was released by the Florida Democratic Party.

State law says officers and other state workers “may not participate in any political campaign” while on duty. A violation is a first-degree misdemeanor.

Officers at the events said they thought they were there as security for an official event on reductions in crime, not for his campaign.

In one case, when reporters told them the events were campaign-related, they left.

Representatives of the Scott campaign have said they made clear to law enforcement they were asked to a campaign stop, not an official event.

In any case, “the significance of this flagrant disregard for the statutes of the state of Florida by its highest elected officer cannot be overstated,” the complaint says.

Politics experts say they don’t remember a campaign in which agency complaints were used as political weapons this often or this early.

Tally of known complaints: Democrats two, Republicans six.

“I mean, we’re not even through the primaries yet,” said Aubrey Jewett, a University of Central Florida political science professor. “It’s not a brand new tactic, but I don’t remember, even going back to the ’70s, this many complaints already being filed.”

Carol Weissert, chairwoman of civic education and political science at Florida State University, called it “endemic of the times.”

“It’s a result of party polarization,” she said, adding that some of it may result from the particularly sour feelings Republican have over Crist bolting from the party in 2010.

Marano declined comment Thursday, saying his complaint “speaks for itself.”

His is the most recent in a line of gubernatorial campaign-related filings with the Florida Elections Commission and Florida Commission on Ethics:

March 17: Allison Tant, chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party, filed an elections law complaint against Scott, maintaining that his campaign wrongly transferred nearly $27.4 million from one type of campaign account to another.

The money was moved from “Let’s Get to Work,” Scott’s defunct electioneering communications organization, to his political committee, also called “Let’s Get to Work.”

March 18: Juston Johnson, executive director of the Republican Party of Florida, filed an elections-law complaint on the Morgan & Morgan law firm’s use of Crist’s name and likeness “on billboards across Florida.”

The billboards were an “unreported in-kind contribution that far exceeds the statutory contribution limit of $3,000 per person,” Johnson said. The billboards were taken down soon after the complaint was filed.

April 14: Johnson, of the Republican Party, filed an elections law complaint regarding the Morgan & Morgan law firm’s use of Crist in a television ad for the firm’s services, which aired on the CBS affiliate in Tallahassee.

Johnson said the ad was an “unreported in-kind contribution.” The affiliate, WCTV, later apologized to Crist and Morgan & Morgan, saying the ad ran by mistake.

June 19: Johnson filed an ethics law complaint against Crist regarding his Dec. 30, 2010, appointment of Joseph A. Linnehan to a judicial nominating committee for Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry and Lee counties.

Johnson suggested the appointment was a quid pro quo for Crist getting a job at Morgan & Morgan; Linnehan was and still is a partner at the firm.

June 23: A Clay County man filed an elections law complaint against Crist for campaign finance violations, including “excessive compensation” from Morgan & Morgan and accepting but not reporting in-kind donations from the firm.

July 2: Johnson filed an elections law complaint against Crist for accepting an in-kind contribution that exceeds the $3,000 limit. The contribution in question was a vehicle sponsorship by “Charlie Crist for Governor” in the NASCAR Coke Zero 400 race in Daytona.

Crist’s name was taken off the car, driven by Josh Wise and owned by Mike Curb.

July 9: Sarasota Republican Party chairman Joe Gruters filed an ethics law complaint against Crist, saying he cut corners on his financial disclosure by not listing details of assets and liabilities and other financial relationships.

Complaints usually are considered confidential when filed, and the agencies do not even acknowledge their existence until there is a finding of probable cause.

Probable cause means it is more likely than not that a violation of law has occurred.

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