A Tallahassee judge now controls the political fate of Democratic candidate for Attorney General Ryan Torrens.
Circuit Judge Karen Gievers held a bench trial Wednesday on whether to disqualify the Tampa attorney. For now, the Tampa consumer affairs attorney faces state Rep. Sean Shaw – also a Tampa lawyer – in next Tuesday’s primary election.
Gievers did not say when she would rule, but there’s little time left for review if either side wants to appeal.
Shaw filed suit to get Torrens kicked off the ballot, saying he qualified to run only by way of improperly transferring money into his campaign account. That was to have enough money to cut a check for the qualifying fee.
During his testimony, Torrens – a George Washington University Law School graduate admitted to practice law in Florida in 2011 – said he was running a “grassroots” effort: “I do whatever I can to help the campaign. It’s usually struggling for resources.”
But he repeated that what he did was ultimately legal under campaign finance law. Natalie Kato, Shaw’s lawyer, disagreed.
“This is a case about bad faith and dishonest purpose,” she told Gievers. “It is about … what happened (when) ill-gotten funds were used … to improperly qualify for the ballot.”
Attorney Jared McCabe, representing Torrens, countered that his client simply “took money out of his own account and lent it to himself,” adding that Torrens’ only mistake was muddying things by signing his wife’s name instead of his own.
At issue is a $4,000 check written June 18 out of a Washington, D.C. credit union account controlled by both Torrens and his wife, Francesca Yabraian, and deposited into the campaign coffers. Yabraian is often out of the Tampa area; she works for the federal government and has a security clearance.
Torrens’ campaign treasurer soon flagged the deposit as over the $3,000 contribution limit allowed under law.
But Kato made hay of the fact that Torrens apparently dithered for “over a month” while trying to figure out what to do about the money.
“You just whistled past that graveyard, didn’t you?” Kato asked. Torrens later said he was “doing due diligence, trying to figure out how to handle this.” Kato came back again, suggesting that not getting an answer until after the qualifying period ended gave him “plausible deniability.”
She also had him read Division of Elections guidance that a check signed by one party of a joint account is presumed to come only from that party—in this case, his wife, since it’s her ‘signature.’ The implication was that Torrens can’t count it as a self-loan.
Torrens, under questioning by his own attorney, suggested any mistake he made was an honest one, and agreed with McCabe that he never intended to deceive anyone, including “the general public.”
He explained he signed the check with his wife’s name – with her OK, he stressed – and not his own name “because I was in a great hurry.”
Still pending is a counterclaim by Torrens against Shaw, who did not attend Wednesday’s trial. Torrens claims Shaw’s allegations in his lawsuit libeled him, though Gievers remarked that things said in a court filing are generally privileged and not actionable.