In the twilight hours of the Republican primary for Florida’s 15th Congressional District, former state Rep. Neil Combee has accused his chief rival in the five-way race of a serious crime: Buying votes.
In a press release issued by Combee’s campaign Friday, the Auburndale Republican condemned the campaign of Dover state Rep. Ross Spano for “their blatantly illegal attempt to bribe voters,” further alleging that Spano and his campaign paid cash to customers at a Lakeland gas station and urged them to support Spano.
“I fully condemn today’s blatantly illegal vote buying scheme by Ross Spano. Giving voters cash in exchange for their support is the opposite of free and fair elections. Today’s illegal vote buying attempt does our party a disservice and reminds people more of Venezuela than Valrico,” Combee said.
“As a lawyer, Spano should know better. As Floridians, when it comes to Ross Spano, we can do better,” he concluded.
The campaign also said law enforcement had been notified and an investigation is anticipated.
The Spano campaign issued a statement via campaign spokeswoman Sandi Poreda saying the accusations were false.
“This afternoon, we became aware of statements made by the Neil Combee campaign claiming our campaign had engaged in illegal activity. We also became aware of at least one lawsuit filed today against Neil Combee’s campaign manager alleging defamation,” she said.
“We are currently evaluating whether today’s statements rise to the level of defamation or merely show a stunning ignorance of election law; if they are defamatory, we too may file a lawsuit to protect ourselves from these outrageous and inflammatory accusations,” she concluded.
Florida Politics also received a message from Melissa Nichols, who said she was the individual who witnessed the illegal activity on two occasions. The first, Nichols said, was an official campaign event that offered a free concealed weapons training course to those in the district.
“The [Federal Elections Commission] has clearly articulated that such events are ‘problematic’ because they confer ‘significant personal benefit’ to non-campaign related beneficiaries. The cash value of such a benefit like a concealed weapons permitting class is $100 or higher in Florida. To residents of CD 15, $100-plus is significant,” she wrote.
The second alleged violation was the aforementioned gas station grift.
Nichols said “Spano held an event at a local gas station in which he paid potential voters a ‘rebate’ on their gas purchase — in cash. Spano campaign manager Brock Mikosky admitted in the press that the campaign gave over $145 in cash to voters. This action, if permitted to continue, amounts to bribery or vote buying or both. This action clearly implicates 18 USC 597 — ‘Expenditures to Influence Voting.’”
That federal law reads as follows: “Whoever makes or offers to make an expenditure to any person, either to vote or withhold his vote, or to vote for or against any candidate; and whoever solicits, accepts, or receives any such expenditure in consideration of his vote or the withholding of his vote — Shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both; and if the violation was willful, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.”
The event Nichols is referencing saw Spano give a nickel “rebate” per gallon of gas purchased at Nick and Moe’s convenience store in Kathleen for the purpose of highlighting a gas tax increase Combee voted for during his time as a Polk County Commissioner.
The largest amount any one individual received was $1.65 — 33 nickels for gallons of gas.
Nichols told Florida Politics that she was not affiliated with either Combee’s or Spano’s campaigns, however, public posts made on her Facebook page paint a different picture.
Despite being a firm Combee supporter for weeks, Nichols said “I am not affiliated with any one politician, but can not stand illegal activity and people persuading votes based on vote buying.” She added that she has reported the alleged violations to the Florida Elections Commission, the Federal Elections Commission, the Department of Defense, the State Attorney’s office, the US State Attorney office and the FBI.
Spano and Combee are running alongside Lakeland contractor Sean Harper, Brandon agribusinessman Danny Kushmer and Lakeland mental health practitioner Ed Shoemaker in the Aug. 28 primary election for the open seat currently held by retiring U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross.
CD 15 covers parts of Hillsborough, Polk and Lake counties and is considered a likely Republican win in November.