With the amount of big-money that has come to dominate local politics having reached the point where it’s nearly impossible for grassroots candidates to field competitive campaigns, it’s more clear than ever that something has to be done. However, it’s not just the sheer magnitude of the money that citizens should be concerned about, but where that money is going and what it might be buying along the way.
Manatee County Commissioner John Chappie raised and spent over $65,000 to get reelected in 2012. That's a lot of money for a local district race, especially when you consider one peculiar fact: he didn't have an opponent. With all that money, Commissioner Chappie paid $45,000 in “winning bonuses” to various political operatives. That’s a lot of money to raise from contributors and awards to political insiders when there is no election to contest.
As we gear up for another election this November, it's critical to take a close look at how the political game is played. After all, there are winners and losers each time out. But what do you call it when there’s no opponent? Commissioner Chappie calls it a win, and paid record bonuses to those who helped him … do what -- not lose to non-existent challengers? Such irregular movement of monies definitely raises red flags and it’s questionable whether all of it is legal.
State law provides guidance to candidates on how to dispose of the leftover money in their campaign accounts. They can donate to a not-for-profit of their choice, fund their office account and pay any invoices yet unpaid. Chappie's report included questionable expenses paid to several people, all political operatives, including the accounting firm of Eric Robinson. The Venice-based Robinson has close political ties to convicted felon Robert Waechter and is also the husband of Sarasota County Commissioner Christine Robinson. In the same 2012 election, he was both Commissioner Benac and Bustle’s Campaign Treasurer as well.
You may also recall that Robinson was Treasurer for Take Back Our Government, the organization that was funded by developer Carlos Beruff and headed by Waechter, and sent out all of those nasty mailers smearing me. Robinson was also behind all those nasty mailers for the indigent sales tax, using the political cover of Manatee Against Taxation and Manatee for Common Cents. When it came time to make financial disclosures, the money was nearly untraceable, passing from one committee through the other from a company that wasn’t registered with the state.
The normal monthly fee of $250 paid to Robinson’s firm by Chappie’s district campaign was supplemented by a $14,520.53 bonus for accounting fees on 9/4/2012, bringing the total paid to $19,020.53. As treasurer of Benac’s campaign, Robinson was paid a total of $2,805.44 for a countywide race that included both a primary and a general election, yet Benac paid no “bonus” after winning. So why did Chappie’s race cost over $16,000 more in accounting fees when he had no opponent in either the primary or the general election and was running in a smaller race? Robinson would not discuss specifics of any of the commissioners billing with TBT.
Benac and Chappie also shared political operative Linda Cinque, who Chappie paid a handsome winning bonus of $15,000, in addition to the $4,678.94 he had already paid her, bringing the total to $19,675.94. Benac, who again, did actually have to campaign in a very close race, only paid $ 7,624.58 to Cinque – $12,000 less than the unopposed Chappie. Why? Cinque did not return TBT’s request for comment.
The political consulting firm of Political Insights was paid the most by Chappie, a total of $27,000 – a record amount ever paid to a consultant in Manatee County for a candidate who did not have an opponent. It probably comes as no surprise that Mac Stevenson of Political Insights was also the consultant for Benac and Bustle (both sponsored primarily by Beruff). Benac shows what appears to be a bonus paid of $13,000 on 11/05/2012 to Political Insights. Bustle, who had both a primary and general election opponent, only paid Political Insights $3,000 for his winning bonus – $12,000 less than Commissioner Chappie’s $15,000 winning bonus. Stevenson declined a request for comment.
While no two races are the same, it is only logical to assume that if you have no opponent, you would not pay as much to your consultants and accountants as someone who did -- let alone considerably more. But this is politics, where logic rarely seems to apply. With all of this money changing hands and little disclosure as to where it comes from or where it goes, it is easy to imagine a sort of political money-laundering where support can be given in one place and paid to another, only to fund something else. Too often, there’s no way to know.
Unfortunately, the prescribed method of determining whether fraud was committed or election laws were violated, would be an investigation by the State Attorney Ed Brodsky. However, Brodsky is linked into the exact same political machine he would be investigating, just as was the case when Waechter was caught on video tape committing overt political fraud, but got an easy go of it from Brodsky, who even refused the FBI's request to join the case. Hence, it seems highly unlikely that Chappie’s situation would draw much interest from Brodsky's office, who again might have to turn over rocks too close to his own backyard.
Campaign reports are required to be filed so that the public has a way to know where the money is coming from and how it is spent. In a comparison of the campaigns of the other two county commissioners, Benac and Bustle, both of whom had opponents and won, you see that nowhere near as much was paid for what could have only been considerably more work than Chappie’s non-campaign in a small district. The math clearly does not add up, but until someone with the authority is willing to investigate the red flags, the public will remain out of the sunshine that is intended to keep Florida politics above the board.
Joe McClash is a 22-year veteran of the Manatee County Commission and the publisher of The Bradenton Times.