St. Petersburg City Council Chair Lisa Wheeler-Bowman faced more than a dozen state election code violations, according to an order of probable cause filed in December by the Florida Elections Commission.
Wheeler-Bowman, who defeated Will Newton for the District 7 seat in 2015, is in her first year as chair after serving as vice chair last year.
In a letter obtained by Florida Politics through a public records request of the City of St. Petersburg, South Pasadena resident Jim Donelon asks commissioners why they would elevate Wheeler-Bowman to such a position, pointing to the December order outlining probable cause for 15 ethics violations.
“I find it difficult to understand why you have elevated such a person as described in the attached Florida Elections Commission Order of Probable Cause to represent the City of St. Petersburg as Chair of City Council,” Donelon wrote March 18. “What is most troubling is Count 14 and 15.”
The counts which Donelon refers to include accusations that Wheeler-Bowman (aka Talisha Brown) used funds on deposit in a campaign account “to defray normal living expenses” and making expenditures prohibited by Chapter 106, Florida Statutes, each punishable as a first-degree misdemeanor.
Wheeler-Brown 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 Florida Politics. 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, it 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 headed Advantage Village Academy.
Donelon highlighted the entire fiasco, complete with dates and citations from SaintPetersblog.com reports, in a six-page complaint to the FEC.
As for what happens next, the order gave Wheeler-Bowman several options: She can either resolve the case immediately by paying a fine, request an informal hearing before the commission (if she does not dispute the charges) or — if she disputes any of the accusations — request a formal hearing before an administrative law judge.
Wheeler-Bowman, a medical billing specialist and longtime community activist, has been outspoken on gun violence, campaigning on a platform of safer neighborhoods. Endorsed by the Tampa Bay Times in 2015 in one of the most contentious local races of that year, she is now one of seven Democrats serving on the eight-person, majority female City Council. District 7 includes much of St. Pete’s Midtown community and many of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
Here is the letter Donelon sent to City Council: